Consider this hypothetical situation:
You make widgets for a living. The pay is very good, anywhere from about $600K to $1 million a year if you perform especially well. You don’t have to work summers, which can last anywhere from three to five months. The job is highly prestigious. There are only 29 other people of your caliber in the world who are deemed capable of making widgets. Oh, and the best part: You’ve dreamed of making widgets all your life. It’s literally your dream job.
The main drawback – one of few – is that you will get injured at work. Previous widget-makers have had to quit after less than five years because of their injuries. You heard that one guy suffered multiple head injuries on the job, enough that it probably contributed to his death at age 45. Other guys aren’t dead but are dealing with permanent scars, psychologically more than physically.
Then on Friday, you heard the worst news imaginable. One of the other 29 widget-makers was found dead at his home at age 28. You know he suffered a concussion in December and hadn’t been able to go back to work since. You don’t know the whole story, but you’re in shock.
Now, the key question: Knowing this, knowing the potentially heightened stakes of injury, are you still going to keep making widgets?
That’s more or less what I asked former Kings forward George Parros on Tuesday. The widget-makers in this hypothetical scenario are NHL enforcers, in case you hadn’t guessed, and the recently deceased is Derek Boogaard. Parros’ answer to the key question: “As far as changing the way I play the game, right now I probably will not.”
I asked Kings forward Kevin Westgarth the same question Wednesday.
His reply: “You have to take all the information that is available. It’s extremely courageous, to the nth degree, that the family donated (Boogaard’s brain) to research. It’s one of those things you have to put in the whole. It’s not a single entity … it’s a lifelong dream, a goal, that has contributed to this. It definitely will have an impact when they come out with the results. One way or another, more likely than not, there will be something found. You don’t know, but inevitably if you’re in this role, you expect some amount of damage along the way.”
Westgarth said he heard about Boogaard when Kings teammate Matt Greene received and relayed a text message. Westgarth didn’t know Boogaard personally, only as an opponent. They never fought. But the 30 widget-makers are a fraternity.
“There’s definitely a brotherhood,” Westgarth said. “Especially for someone like that to pass away, it just hits really close to home. Your heart goes out to everyone, especially his family, his two brothers. You end up thinking about yourself more than you’d like to – what would it be like if it happened to you?”
The 27-year-old Westgarth seems to have already thought about the hazards of his job a little, maybe more than most. He wears something called an M11 helmet, which was designed by Mark Messier and his sister, Mary-Kay, and produced by Cascade Sports. It’s not a fail-safe against concussions, but “the protection is a lot different,” Westgarth said. “I’ve used it the last two years and it’s done very well for me. A lot of companies are doing something about these problems. You have to do something that works for you.”
Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, who has suffered multiple concussions in his career, also wears the M11 helmet.
Westgarth said he’s never suffered a concussion, which is probably less a byproduct of the helmet he wears and more a combination of luck and fighting style. Westgarth isn’t a toe-to-toe brawler (such as Kyle Clifford – who did suffer at least one concussion in his first NHL season). He prefers to grapple with opponents at an arm’s length.
But Westgarth is sympathetic to players who aren’t as lucky.
“This year one of the better things (the NHL) did in my opinion was take it out of the players’, doctors’ and teams’ hands — if you have concussion symptoms you take a week off,” he said. “Nobody wants to take a day off, a shift off, much less the whole week.
“We’re not going to take care of ourselves. The team and the game comes ahead of our long-term views of ourselves. The increase in protection, they’ve done a lot of research on head protection.”
Westgarth looks forward to the results of studies on Boogaard’s brain to add to that knowledge.
“We need to get to the bottom of it,” he said, “because it’s a tragedy.”