In wake of Greg Johnson death, ex-NHLer predicts epidemic of head trauma consequences

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Greg Johnson

Detroit — The news of former Red Wing Greg Johnson’s death, apparently by suicide, saddened Daniel Carcillo.

A former NHL enforcer who played 12 seasons, Carcillo has criticized the NHL for its handling of head injuries while lobbying for better health care for players.

Carcillo, 34, is a passionate advocate for the study of concussions and mental health, and founder of the Chapter 5 Foundation, which helps athletes find their new purpose as they transition into life after hockey.

In a police report obtained by The Detroit News on Wednesday, Johnson’s widow, Kristin Johnson, said her husband suffered "numerous concussions during his playing career,” but she witnessed no signs of depression.

At this point, there is no known connection between Johnson’s concussions and his death at age 48. But there has been increased scrutiny in recent years of head trauma in athletes, primarily football and hockey players, due to several diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Carcillo believes the physical beating hockey players are taking from an early age is contributing to their mental and physical declines.

“I hope I’m wrong but I believe there’s going to be an epidemic coming as far as head trauma  and it just might get worse for a little while anyway," Carcillo said on Thursday.

The Chicago Blackhawks' Daniel Carcillo and the Detroit Red Wings' Todd Bertuzzi fight during a game on Dec. 30, 2011.

Carcillo has battled depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He said the physical and mental toll has been enormous.

“There’s been a pretty steady amount of death it seems,” Carcillo said. “I didn’t know Greg personally but when you hear something like that about a former player  and I’ve battled a fair share of mental health issues  it definitely hits home.

“You want to be respectful to the family, but you also have to talk about it honestly and talk about what happened, because in an effort to educate people about possible signs or symptoms  or getting a discussion going about suicide, mental health, concussions  it all ties in to each other.

“In talking (to former players, teammates of Johnson’s) you get the sense he was a really good guy, from that region of Thunder Bay (Ontario), down to earth, and you feel for everybody involved.”

Carcillo said athletes are taught and encouraged to fight through injuries and the extracted toll can be dangerous.

“We’re damaged and we’re hurt and we don’t even realize it because we’re comfortable being uncomfortable,” Carcillo said. “You get into this real world after a career  for me personally and in my experience, I was physically, mentally and emotionally broken. If I didn’t stop, I was going to die, too.

“A lot of us leave home at 15 years old and we’re very much broken inside. Even when we retire at (age) 30 or 40, that’s why this is still happening. Guys aren’t healing. They try to numb out symptoms that they don’t understand, they’re never educated about them, and there’s not a lot of help and some guys succumb to it.”

Carcillo said he obviously doesn't know what Johnson’s mental state was at the time of his death, but he can speak with clarity and conviction about his own struggles.

“The tough thing with brain injury survivors is you lose that sense of self, of who you really are," Carcillo said. "If you don’t have a firm grasp on that, your thoughts can run away from you.

“The message is to not give up and keep searching and keep that hope because without hope, that’s when we start getting into that scary territory.”

Twitter: @tkulfan