“I just remember waking up in the locker room with people slapping me in the face. I guess I had a faint pulse.” — Dennis Vaske, one of many former National Hockey League players to join the NHL concussion lawsuit.
On the night before Thanksgiving in 1995, the New York Islanders played the Los Angeles Kings at Nassau Coliseum. The game was unremarkable, save for one horrible incident that many hockey fans still remember more than 20 years later.
While retrieving the puck in his team’s own end, Islanders Defenseman, Dennis Vaske, was brutally driven into the boards by Los Angeles Kings left winger, Eric Lacroix. Vaske’s helmet came up in the midst of the hit, exposing his head to the blunt force of the boards.
The Islanders defenseman was knocked unconscious as blood began to spill from a gash above his temple. He would remain motionless on the ice for several moments and didn’t regain consciousness until he was roused by team doctors in the locker room.
According to Vaske, the hit was the beginning of the end of his career as a professional hockey player. He suffered a severe concussion, which kept him off the ice for the remainder of the 1995-1996 season. When he finally did come back to the team, Vaske recalls a game in Tampa when he was hit hard again, this time at center ice. He went back to the bench and just knew he was right back in the same place he was after the game against the Kings at Nassau. Everything went blank.
“I don’t know the scientific terminology to say,” says Vaske, “but it’s almost like your brain gets like a bruised peach. You get hit and you get that soft spot.”
After coming back to the team for a couple of brief stints cut short by subsequent concussions, Vaske retired at the age of 31. He only played in 39 NHL games after the hit against the boards in 1995.
Should Vaske himself have known what would become of him years later after hanging up his skates? This question lies at the heart of the NHL concussion lawsuit, and Vaske is one of almost 120 players to join.
Life After the NHL
Dennis Vaske is now 48 and his life has taken many unexpected turns. He says he still gets post-concussion symptoms every now and again, like sleep issues and violent headaches. Sometimes he’ll find himself standing somewhere and ask himself why he’s there, then he’ll retrace his steps in an effort to recall what he was doing. Other times he’ll be out shopping and have trouble finding his car in the parking lot, forced to hit the emergency alert to remember.
His symptoms have also affected his mood and emotions. His relationship with his family, including his two daughters, has been repeatedly put to the test. Vaske told ESPN News that it has been difficult living through the effects of multiple concussions—he has to keep working to cope with it all.
Why Players Are Joining the NHL Concussion Lawsuit
Former players involved in the NHL concussion lawsuit claim the league either knew or should have known about the potential for long term neurological damage to the players. Furthermore, the NHL concussion lawsuit claims that while the NHL exposed players to this risk, the league continued to profit from hockey’s reputation as a violent sport.
The NHL has in recent years ramped up its concussion protocol. But back when players like Vaske played the game, there were no concussion spotters, no quiet rooms for players to recover from the effects of concussions. Back then, the standard was simple: players used a buddy system to watch teammates who had “their bells rung,” making sure that they weren’t bleeding from the ears or throwing up after a game.
For some, the NHL concussion lawsuit may seem like a way for players who’ve been hit with hard times after their careers ended to make a quick buck. The fact that more and more former players continue to join the NHL concussion lawsuit refutes this notion because the decision is not one player is making easily. Most are still actively involved in the game, and many are still affiliated with the league, so joining the lawsuit could put careers in jeopardy.
These players aren’t looking to put an end to the league, and they aren’t looking to get rich off of the NHL concussion lawsuit—many are simply scared of what might happen to their health years down the road. They want answers—what the league knew about concussions and when. More than anything, they want to ensure fellow players like Vaske, who are suffering from the longterm effects of concussions, are taken care of.
“I’m not involved in this to kill the NHL, it’s a great organization,” says Brad Maxwell, who played for the Minnesota North Stars and is part of the NHL concussion lawsuit. Maxwell just wants to make sure that former players receive regular neurological status monitoring as they age. He says that would be the least the league could do for players.
“It’d be really great that I could tell my wife that when I get to be 75 if I’m seriously messed up, I have help,” says Maxwell.