Keith Primeau is a former NHL star drafted third overall in the 1990 NHL draft. He captained two NHL teams: the Carolina Hurricanes and the Philadelphia Flyers. Keith was also an Olympic Athlete for Team Canada in the 1998 Olympics and an NHL All-Star. Today, Keith has a foundation for concussion awareness and educates players on post-concussion syndrome and the different treatment options available to help people in stopping concussions.
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Stopping Concussions with Keith Primeau
Please welcome, Keith Primeau. Keith, where are you from?
Originally, I’m from Canada. I was born and raised just outside of Toronto in a town called Whitby.
Were you born on skates or have you been skating ever since you can remember?
I pretty much started skating when I was four and started playing organized hockey when I was five. I played for a long time.
Were you in any other sports growing up or is it just strictly hockey?
No, I was afforded the opportunity to basically try whatever I wanted. I played lots of different sports. I tried different instruments. The other sports I played, I played some lacrosse growing up, I played rugby and volleyball in high school but they all dropped off as I continued to pursue a hockey career.
How old were you when you realized that you really had a gift with hockey and that you could definitely do something with it?
I think it was when I was fifteen and I was drafted to the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League to the Ontario Hockey League and I was drafted by the Hamilton Steelhawks. I was just like every other kid growing up in Canada. The dream was to play in the National Hockey League but the reality was what we watched on TV on Saturday night. I just had an epiphany when I was drafted to Major Junior and realized that at that point this could be a reality and I really began pursuing that goal.
You began playing in the OHL at fifteen, sixteen?
I was fifteen when I started playing.
Was that a big jump for you?
It was because I came out of Major Bantam Double-A. I was only playing Double-A hockey at that time. I dealt with my challenges. I also had three years eligibility before my draft year so I had lots of time to develop.
You had a good career in the OHL?
Yeah, three years all with the same franchise. The first year is with Hamilton and their franchise and then moved to Niagara Falls where I spent my second and third year. My third year, I end up winning the league scoring race, which was my draft year. It catapulted me into the draft and into my first year of pro.
Who drafted you?
I was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.
Were you going to the NHL around eighteen, nineteen too?
Yes, the same year I was drafted, I graduated from Major Junior and I played my first year of pro as an eighteen-year-old.
You see a lot of talented hockey players and sometimes the most talented kids you grew up playing with don’t make it. What was it for you? Was it the mindset that brought you all that way? What do you think it was that carried you to that league level?
I think it was a couple of factors and certainly mindset is one of them. You’re correct in stating that a lot of great players, when they’re younger, never fulfill their ambitions. A lot of times it’s just natural course of evolution and other times it’s getting sidetracked by just life in general. It takes a determined individual to continue to persevere especially with their goal of playing a professional sport. Even still it doesn’t guarantee even if you are a persistent individual that your dreams and aspirations come true. You definitely need that quality if you’re going to attempt it for sure.
Were you firing on all cylinders when you made it to NHL or did you hit a couple of speed bumps where you were like, “What’s going on here?”
I had some speed bumps for sure. My first year, I was in a lineup as an eighteen-year-old and my second year actually was sent down to the Minors where I played half of the year. The first two years of my Pro career were definitely a challenge. It wasn’t until my third year when I started to hit my stride and really develop into an everyday NHL-er. From that point on, I probably had twelve or thirteen really good years in the National Hockey League. Part of my life I looked back on fondly.
Keith, when did you start experiencing some of your concussion issues? We both grew up getting hit in the head our entire lives. When did you notice, “This is definitely my first concussion?”
I can’t look back and say when my first concussion is. I’m amazed with players who played in my year who actually have the ability to recollect how many concussions they’ve actually had dating back to when they first started playing. When I get asked the question, I have four documented concussions but the number is north of ten. I don’t know where that number falls. To know where I felt the real first one that started to impact my health was in the summer of ’96 at the Rural Cup. I circled in a Neutral zone and I ran into a big gentleman named Eric Lindros and we were on the same team. I had my first documented concussion that season actually in Hartford playing for the Hartford Whalers in probably January or February of ’97. I think it was due to the hit I had the previous summer. I’ve never really fully recovered. I look back on that year and I had a lot of issues that now make a lot more sense. That was probably in the first one that I can recollect as having an impact on my health.
What were some of those symptoms you went through after that hit?
It’s just lethargy and brain fog and just the feeling of always not having the same energy level that I normally have or you expect to have as a professional athlete. I literally remember feeling that summer of ’97 my brain actually settling. When I wasn’t doing anything, I spent the summer at home and the rest allowed my symptoms to subside and I felt good again. Now, I’m starting down that slippery slope of injuries.
Was it a couple of seasons later that you experienced it again or was it the next season?
No. My second documented concussion happened in the spring of 2000, my first year with the Philadelphia Flyers and playing in the play-offs. All four of my documented concussions were very similar. Three of them were through the Neutral zone. The fourth one was in the Defense Zone but all of them were open ice and were direct hit to the head which in today’s game is an expansion and there’s a lot less of because they protect the head which is obviously a key component of protecting the players. I was hit in the Neutral zone and I was stretchered off of the ice, stayed in the Pittsburgh Hospital overnight and ended up ultimately playing two nights later in the first game of the Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils. On reflection, that was probably for me after saying the first one was recognizing that as the beginning. This was probably the beginning of the demise. This one I definitely knew better and I didn’t manage it properly.
Did you lose consciousness?
I don’t think I did but from the time of the hit to the time I noticed somebody, it’s the trainers standing over top of me. I might have for a few seconds but I don’t ever feel like any of my concussions I blacked out. That probably is the one where if I was to say that I was out for a few seconds, that would be the one.
You continued playing in that. Were you able to finish the series?
We beat up Pittsburgh, we started against New Jersey and I finished out the season. I finished out the playoffs against New Jersey who eventually lost two in seven games. I played all seven games. It went into the summer and again rest in recovery but I just didn’t manage it properly. That time they started doing ImPACT Baseline Testing. In between game six against Pittsburgh and game one against New Jersey, I also had to go see the neurologist who’s a lovely lady. She took me in and she administered the Baseline. I focused all night and all day to take the test. We’ve done it enough times and knew what was coming. I was able to pass my Baseline and she sat across her desk from me and said, “There’s nothing I can do to keep you from playing, Keith, but please be careful.” She had a very serious look on her face. I chuckled, she knew what I was doing, I knew what she was saying.
How old were you at this point?
I was 29.
Are you captain of the Flyers at this point?
That was coming in the couple, so you still had a lot of hockey?
Yeah. I’m 29 years old, I wasn’t even 30 yet. I walked out of her office and I’ve walked down to the street in downtown Philadelphia and I had a blistering headache. I didn’t heed the signs and the warnings and proceeded to play but again, ImPACT Baseline Testing is vital. I feel any parent who’s going to put their kid into sport and certainly contact sports should have Baseline Testing. It’s only one safeguard. It’s important that not you get ImPACT Baseline but you get clearance and you get seen by proper medical professionals in order to get cleared to play.
Did all your symptoms settle after the off-season after that one? Were you good to go for the next season or you were just pushing through it?
I was good to go and I had a recovery on that. It was probably a four to six-week window. The period of time between recovery, I sense it. Right now, I know the time period is growing, which led to my third documented concussion in 2004. It was a little bit earlier. It was February. It was not too long after the All-Star break. It was massive score guard and I turned into the neutral zone and I was blindsided in the neutral zone by Bobby Holík. I didn’t think it was terrible when I got to the bench and just didn’t feel right. I left the bench and went into the training room and the team trainer said, “You’re done for the night.” I think at that point it’s the third period. I felt fine. I returned home and I get home and my wife tells me that I don’t look great. It’s almost argumentative. I’m most argumentative that I’m fine, I feel fine. It was a Thursday night, we had a Saturday home game, I’m in the car driving on my way to the rank for a Saturday afternoon home game. I get motion sick, which had never happened. I can’t focus, I feel sick, obnoxious. I get to the Starbucks down the street and I called the trainer and I told him I don’t feel good and he told me to turn around and go home. That was the beginning of documented concussion number three of which I have for six weeks. I forced myself back into the lineup just in time for the playoffs. Probably not fully recovered which again was very dangerous.
Did it affect the way you were playing? Were you more cautious going to the corners and everything?
I think it’s interesting because 2004 was a tremendous playoff run for me. I think what it did was made me much more acutely aware. I had to really focus on everything, the game that I had to make sure I was focused and prepared because I was afraid to get hit. I had to really focus on the play, I had to focus on the puck. I played really well and it didn’t impact my game then. That impacted come to later.
You’ve got three documented now and then this season ends?
The season ends and we go into the lockout, the lockout year which was good for me because now I’ve read three documented concussions. I’m starting to feel the effects of it, not to the point where I’m concerned or I’m worried. I’m figuring the lockout would give me an opportunity to again heal, rest and recover. I come out of the lockout in the fall of 2005. We started the season and we’re nine games in and we were up in Montreal and the same thing, the puck comes off the goalie’s pads on a penalty kill and I turned up and the guy was coming in for the rebound. He runs over me and I caught it in the side of the head and I’m down for a second and basically checking to see how I feel. I felt okay and again third period is close to the end of the game. Trainer sends me off and I get on a bus afterwards. I called my parents and my wife and I told them both that I’m actually excited, I feel fine, I feel good and I was waiting for that next big hit and I felt like I handled it. Only to 24, 48 hours again, I start to regress and start to have the blurred vision, the nausea, lethargy and that was documented concussion number four and a long time to recover after that.
Was that your final year?
That was October 2005. I fought all year to return to the lineup. I worked on my own on the ice, off the ice. I end up missing the entire season. I returned in the end of the summer of 2006. I’m on the ice skating with a group of guys and after the skate, I walked into the trainer’s office and I sat down and I said, “I feel good. Another week or two and I’ll be right there. I’m definitely feeling better.” He looks at me and he says, “I appreciate your effort, Keith, but in good conscience, I’ll never be able to let you play again.” At that point, my career was over. That story, I appreciate because the culture that we grew up in is different in the mindset and today it’s much better. Courage then was playing through those types of injuries. To me, courage today is the ability to say, “I’m hurt. I don’t feel right. I need help.” Then the second part was that if the trainer didn’t tell me he wouldn’t clear me, he wouldn’t let me play again, I would just keep trying. I’m in-debt to the athletic therapist, Jim McCrossin, who recognized that I was putting my health in jeopardy.
Were you almost relieved at that point or were you angry or upset? What was going on there?
I got in the car and I started driving home. My first sense was that of relief. The disappointment of not being able to play again didn’t hit me until later. It was an impactful moment in my life and certainly a lot of different emotions. The strongest emotion was a sense of relief.
What were the next year or two like? What were you experiencing with the concussions and all that?
The fact that I retired was one thing. It kept me out of harm’s way in playing the sport. Just because you retired the symptoms don’t go away. It was a long journey. It was the better part of seven years before I actually felt some semblance of normalcy. I looked back on that seven years of my life and it’s really in blur. My kids were at a young age. I spent a lot of time with them and I coached them, my boys playing hockey. It’s a stretch in my life where it just flew by. I just don’t remember a whole lot. I afforded the opportunity to see whatever doctor I wanted to or needed to. I was traditional to non-traditional to basically whatever you could think might work. The reason I did that was because I always knew what normal felt like. I didn’t want to lose that. I knew I wanted to get back to that. There was something out there that was going to help me get to that point. I’ve got to tell you, I was close to giving up hope but some things have eventually worked out for me and allowed me to heal.
What route did you go first to get on the path to recovery?
I blinded a lot. It wasn’t just a period of time where I was seeing one type of specialist or therapist, I tried Reiki and I tried acupuncture, and I tried massage and craniosacral and chiropractic. I would say the one mainstay was probably chiropractic because I knew a lot of my difficulty was coming from occipital upper cervical. The one treatment that ultimately helped me the most was the treatment called prolotherapy with Dr. Greenberg, which I had my greatest success. More recently, I had a relapse a few years ago. I hit my head on a doorjamb in a locker room. What’s helped me through that is Atlas Orthogonal.
That’s what I do, I just don’t use the instrument. I do the upper cervical technique but it’s called Blair and it’s done by the hand. Atlas Orthogonal, they use the sound waves in the machine, right?
That’s another upper cervical technique.
Where is your office located?
It’s in Montclair, New Jersey, actually West Orange now. We just moved.
Which is further south, right? Is West Orange south to Montclair?
The office was about a mile and a half away from each other. They border each other. We’re about twelve miles northwest in New York City. We’re exit 148 off the parkway. You’ve been going to an Atlas Orthogonal guy?
Dr. John Sandoz in Morristown. I’ve had some success from that. It’s allowed me to feel better as well.
Keith, you have a foundation now, right?
Explain to us what your foundation is about?
When I played, I was an ambassador for Shoot for a Cure. Shoot for a Cure is a hockey offshoot of CSRO, ASRO, Canadian Spinal Research, American Spinal Research Organizations. They raise funds for spinal cord injury. When I went through my ordeal because of my relationship with them, they created an offshoot for a neurotrauma called Play it Cool. As we did the Play it Cool program and we spoke around the country, what we came to realize was that brain injury or concussion or neurotrauma wasn’t hockey-centric or sports specific but it crossed all walks of life. After speaking, we’d have the little old lady would walk up and say, “I bent over and I hit my head on the counter or hit my head on the door. I suffered concussion.” One, that was alarming to us, but two, it was powerfully. What we also found was that people were being diagnosed with their injury or injury was occurring and they didn’t know where to turn. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety associated with injury to their self or injury to a child or injury to a family member.
We created StopConcussions.com, which is an online portal. My partner, Kerry Goulet, is really the mastermind. He’s heavily involved in the day-to-day and he does all the speaking engagements. It was created to develop an information portal where people could go and research and find information that might help them. We didn’t steer anyone towards any one specific therapy or treatment but try and give them a whole host of avenues that they could try as well just general information. It’s amazing. To me, I believe there’s been a cultural mindset especially in our sport in the game of hockey. There’s still such a long way to go. For me, the medical profession, it’s still so far behind. I know kids in college who goes to their team physician, including my daughter. She’s told that nobody’s ever missed school because of a concussion or, “You’ll be fine. You can take class,” when in reality those are some of the most dangerous things that they can present to her. There’s a long way to go. We’re making a headway and it’s important to continue to get the message out there.
*That’s so important what you’re doing specifically. Even in my case, it took me four years to find any type of hope. You would go tell the doctor, “My hands are shaking. They’re not right.” They’ll put you on seizure medication. I was like, “I’m depressed. I’m not a depressed person, I just don’t feel right,” then the antidepressants would come. I was all drugged up and it made me almost feel worse. That one day I called you, I got your number from Kevin Harding, that was one of the worst days of my entire life. I almost gave up that day. I called you and I can’t thank you enough of just sitting down and talking to me for ten, fifteen minutes. It was nice to talk to somebody that’s been through the same thing and know what to say. I would call my mom and she’d be like, “Kevin, I love you but I don’t know what to do for you right now. We’ve been doing everything and it’s just so difficult.” There are so many kids that go through that. I had patients that don’t hear about upper cervical or any other technique until four or five years later. It’s a shame. What your website and foundation and everything is doing an amazing outlet for so many people and that’s just truly amazing. Thank you. *
I know, thank you. That was the one thing when I played too. People would say, “Reach out to guys who are former players that have to deal with the same issue.” I’m like, “What’s the sense? Are they going to tell me that I have a concussion? I already know I have a concussion.” The level of comfort when I eventually did reach out to them; it is an unfortunate community. I always explain to people, “You just don’t know until you have to deal with it yourself. You can never tell.” It’s important that I share the message and you practice what you’re practicing. I’m going to continue to help the community that we’re an unfortunate part of.
If there’s anything I could do to help out with that foundation, if there’s any speaking or anything, I would love to share my story and just help out as many people going through that.
We’ll take you up on. I’ll talk to Kerry and I’ll have him reach out to you. It’s all about the messaging. It’s all about the education and it’s important that you continue to share the little bit of wealth that we know.
Keith, are you still coaching hockey?
I’m not. I coach my boys. They play Tier 3 Junior on East Coast before they went out to the USHL last year. I stopped coaching for a couple of reasons: One, I wanted to follow them. Two, I want to see if it was something that I really wanted to pursue or if I was really just doing it because the boys are involved. I miss it at times but I have businesses that I’m involved with in the day-to-day and chasing my kids around. That’s enough for now.
Keith, thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. Thank you for everything that you’ve done for me and everybody else. I really appreciate it.
My pleasure. Thank you.