Robin Lehner knows the risks and appreciates the rewards.
So, despite the mounting empirical evidence suggesting athletes suffering head injuries, particularly repeated head injuries, are at increased risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and possibly the onset of dementia, the Islanders goalie has never considered leaving hockey over concerns for his long-term health.
“We’re playing a game that we are choosing to do,” Lehner told Newsday. “There’s no one forcing us. No one is putting a gun to my head and telling me to play. There’s a risk and reward in everything we do in life, whatever profession we take.”
Lehner returned to the Islanders on Thursday after missing three games with a head injury suffered in a collision with the Senators’ Brady Tkachuk on March 5. His tenure with the Senators effectively ended after he suffered a concussion on Feb. 16, 2015.
“No,” Lehner said when if he was worried about the long-term effects of his head injuries. “I’m aware of them. I think every player is aware of them, knowing the long-term effects of certain illnesses, dementia, Alzheimer’s. Maybe some players don’t know. Maybe some players know. But one common denominator is every player in the league knows that concussions are not good for you.
“The reason we play in front of full buildings and make a lot of money and get to live our dream that we’ve wanted to do since we were young is because not everybody can do this,” Lehner added. “If everyone could do this and everyone was fine with the risk and reward, the game wouldn’t be where it is today.
“You can go through whatever profession you want,” Lehner continued. “Everything has a risk to it. You can do the same for lawyers. You can do the same for businessmen. The suicide rate in lawyers, I believe, is one of the highest there is in any profession. Are they aware of the suicide rate when they go in? In life, you grow up, you want to do something. You either go for something or you don’t. When you go for something in life, I sure hope you weigh the risks and rewards.”
The frank discussion was prompted after a related query: With the emphasis the NHL — and other professional sports — are putting on trying to eliminate head shots and reduce the risk of head injuries, should there be more transparency in reporting the injuries to the public?
Head injuries are often labeled as generic upper-body injuries.
Both Lehner and Islanders coach Barry Trotz were emphatic in their belief that not specifying concussions publicly provides needed protection for the players.
“There’s a lot of gray area, from neck to head to whatever,” Trotz told Newsday. “I think that the league has done a pretty good job and they do a really good job medically with the spotters and trainers and they have good protocols. When you get to the playoffs, there are guys that get targeted a little bit.
“With the rules now, it’s eliminating (some of it),” Trotz added. “If it continues down that path, I would think it would be pretty close to complete transparency on that.”
Trotz said while head injuries might be kept from public knowledge, “everything is documented,” with the teams and with the NHL.
“It’s no different than doctor-patient privileges,” Trotz said.
Lehner, who has also played for the Sabres, said he’s been “on teams where the game plan is to run the goalie.”
“The reason there’s an upper- and lower-body injury is to protect the players,” Lehner said. “You go into the playoffs or down the stretch, if you have important players in the lineup and they know a shoulder is hurting him, the other team is going to aim for the shoulder.
“It’s livelihoods,” added Lehner, playing on a one-year, $1.5-million deal after signing with the Islanders as a free agent. “People don’t care. Who’s anyone kidding? People don’t care. People run over goalies all the time knowing the most vulnerable position for a goalie is to be down on his knees with a high probability of tearing knees and ending seasons and careers. But a bunch of guys in the NHL still do it. People don’t care. Things happen. People move on. If I’m injured and gone, people forget.”
Lehner, going on a calendar year of sobriety, chronicled his battles with alcoholism and pill addiction as well as his mental-health struggles at the start of training camp. In Ottawa, his concussion exacerbated his drinking problem.
But he downplayed any suggestion a concussion for him is worse than any other player.
“Somebody who gets rocked in the head that doesn’t have a mental illness still gets rocked in the head,” Lehner said. “I still have my health. I still have my medicines. I still do all my things (to stay sober and control his mental-health issues). Again, it’s up to me to put the risk and the reward and I’m fine with it or not. If I’m not fine with it, it’s real easy to hang up the skates and do something else.”
Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock has heard the comparisons to Canadiens blue-liner Shea Weber. And he’s flattered.
Both wear No. 6, but the real similarity is in their booming slap shots from the point. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound Weber, 33, and 6-2, 217 Pulock, 25, have two of the hardest in the NHL.
“He’s been doing it for a long time, he’s been very effective at it,” Pulock said. “I don’t know if I’m there yet or not. It’s definitely an honor people even bringing it up, if it’s a little bit close. He’s got a heavy shot, for sure.”
To the nines
Through Thursday, 180 of the NHL’s 1,092 regular-season games had a combined nine goals after the Lightning’s 5-4 win at Detroit. It’s the most nine-goal games to this point of the season since 1993-94. The Islanders have played in four:
Oct. 18 at Los Angeles: Islanders 7, Kings 2
Oct. 30 at Pittsburgh: Islanders 6, Penguins 3
Dec. 28 at Barclays Center: Islanders 6, Senators 3
March 5 at Nassau Coliseum: Islanders 5, Senators 4 (Shootout)