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“I have brain damage and I have brain injury symptoms,” an interview with two-time Stanley Cup Champion Dan Carcillo

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Ottawa Senators v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This week, Broad Street Hockey had the privilege of chatting with Former Flyer Daniel Carcillo about a variety of topics - here you can listen to the interview in full, below is the transcript of the conversation.


Bill:

All right now we are on the line we have Daniel Carcillo joining us. How are you Mr. Carcillo?

Dan:

Good guys, how are you?

Kelly:

Great thank you, thanks for joining us.

Dan:

Yeah no problem

Bill:

So Daniel we are going to have Kelly ask you some questions, it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day today and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to have you on, so I’m going to throw it over to Kelly and let’s just have a good conversation here.

Dan:

Cool

Kelly:

Alright, so before we get to the important stuff, this whole interview with you came about because we were kind of doing some reminiscing about the 2010 Cup run on Twitter, and I just wanted to know what your favorite moment from your time as a Flyer was.

Dan:

Good question. I think I came over from Arizona and I was just excited to be playing in a market that was where fans were so passionate and had such a history behind the organization. And I made a lot of really good friends who I still have to this day, from Giroux to Hartnell to Asham to Riley Cote, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Kimmo Timonen. And so I think the connections that I made on that team and while I spent my time there were we’re really special and I would have to say it was the guys. And that 2010 run was something else for sure.

Kelly:

Yeah we were talking about a lot today. It’s literally the most fun we’ve had as a Flyers fan — all of us. I think it was insanely fun.

Dan:

Yeah it’s great. I mean even during the season like looking up in the 300 levels and seeing a fight every time in the stands. I remember my brothers when we played the Penguins, my brothers came down, and I don’t think it, it wasn’t the 2010 run, but they were in there all tailgate everybody was tailgating — it was really nice weather and that was something new that my brothers had never seen. And there was a guy and a Phillies jersey and a guy and a Penguins jersey walking together and I guess somebody just went up to the guy in the Penguins jersey and just punched them right in the face.

Kelly

Oh Boy

Bill:

That’s us

Dan:

My brothers were like oh what—what the heck did we get into? And yeah I mean like the city was just super passionate and the fans were were super passionate and I enjoyed my time there.

Kelly:

So I’m glad you actually brought up Riley Cote because we talked to him a couple of years ago about what it was like to be a fighter in the NHL. And we were kind of talking before the show, and we were wondering — because obviously guys like you and Riley Cote at some point in your hockey careers early on you guys are elite hockey players. Like, you wouldn’t have gotten to where you were without being exceptionally good at the game. And we were wondering, at what point does the fighting take over? Like is it a coach, or something that forces you into that role, or is it just kind of a natural progression, or how does that happen?

Dan:

For me I was in Wilkes-Barre and it was just the way I played the game. I played the game hard and I was a hit a lot. And so I remember my first game. Alain Nasreddine was our captain, Dennis Bonvie was on our team, we had a really tough team in Wilkes-Barre. And I played the first game and I knocked out Kevin Colley and I went back to the bench and everyone was kind of looking at me like “what the heck was that” because, like you said, I was in junior as a 30 goal scorer every year and I fought maybe four times in three years in the OHL.

I saw it as something that I had to do to be honorable with the way that I played the game. And then I ended up being really good at it, and it was something that I continued to do because whenever I saw injustice or whenever I saw guys getting taken advantage of, I thought that was something that I could put on my resume. I could skate, I can shoot, I can score, I can hit, and I’ll stick up for my teammates. And so I just wanted to do everything in my power to get into the NHL and that was something that I did and put on my resume. And then you end up, you know, kind of getting pigeonholed into that role once once you’re good at it, right? And so that’s just I guess it goes with the territory.

Kelly:

So today, as we mentioned, is Bell Let’s Talk Day and today you released a couple of videos on your YouTube channel which everyone should go check out. They’re quite powerful. And they are essentially your personal testimonials about having some traumatic brain injury, CTE, what it’s like to live with that, how you get through it. And one of the things that I found really remarkable about the videos, and about you in general, is that you seem to be so at ease talking about these things and a lot of people find it very difficult to talk about mental health issues. How did you get to this place where it was so easy for you to share your story?

Dan:

It’s been a nine year journey. From 19 to 25 I wasn’t the greatest person — I was pretty selfish and just wanted to make a name for myself in the league and I think I lived a hard life, you know on and off the ice, and it caught up to me at 25 and I had a decision to make after Philly didn’t qualify me and I got signed for basically half what I was worth the year before and it was a big wake up call.

And I ended up going to rehab when I was 25 to get off of opiates and I just learned a lot about myself there. I learned a lot about spirituality and I learned a lot about how my actions affect other people. And it actually changed the way that I played the game, but it made me a better teammate and I always say this when you live the right way, good luck as a sure thing.

And my last five years in the league I went to the Stanley Cup finals four times with three different teams and I won twice and I lost twice. And I don’t think that happens to somebody if you’re a bad teammate or if you’re if you’re not living the right way, you know? Because I was lucky. Some guys don’t even get to playoffs.

Kelly:

Yeah that’s true.

Bill,

Daniel I just wanted to know, you talked about how—I remember a quote when you first got acquired by the Flyers and you talked about in your rookie year you were kind of reckless and just trying to make a name for yourself and you just kind of spoke to that. How do you think you evolved as a player in your time...you know you said at twenty five and then going forward. How do you think you changed your game?

Dan:

I don’t think it was so much changing my game rather than how I interacted with my teammates and how I was conscious about my actions off the ice and in the dressing room. And it was less more about myself than it was about the greater good of the team. And so, you know, you live and you learn, like I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I own up to them, you know. But one thing I don’t regret is the way I played the game.

The NHL created a role for us, and it was a job. It’s very much a job. And, you know, it’s a livelihood. And eventually, you know, that job catches up to you, and caught up to me at 30, and I had to retire because of post-concussive syndrome and my last game the NHL was actually against the Philadelphia Flyers in Philly. And Bellemare caught me with a right and that was my seventh diagnosed concussion and the symptoms are just brutal. And it was not too long after Steve Montador had passed away, we were really close, and I was just spiritually, mentally, and physically done. You know, done with the game.

I had my son, he was born in November and we were lucky enough to end up winning, I ended up winning my second Stanley Cup with the Hawks that year, but I thought it was —that was it. It was time to walk away. I always wanted to be a father and I had my son and I didn’t want to be an absent father and you’re on the road a lot. So there were a lot of factors pointing towards, you know, moving on. And there’s nothing wrong with moving on at a young age to start your second life. Because athletes die two deaths, Derek Armstrong said it best when he said that, you know we really do die two deaths: we die, one piece of us dies when we leave the game, and then we die when we die.

Bill:

I like how you put it, just making sure—I think it’s important people know that it really is a job and the physical toll it takes on you, obviously getting punched in the face getting checked into the boards, while it’s happening probably isn’t the greatest feeling in the world. But we spoke to Riley Cote a little while back, as Kelly mentioned, and he talked to us about preparing mentally for games like when he’d go in and know 48 hours ahead of time “I’m going to be fighting George Laraque tomorrow” and just how that kind of anxiety would wear on him. Can you talk about the toll that that kind of thing takes on you, where you know you have to go do that job maybe? You had over one hundred fights in your career, between regular season, pre-season, and all that, but just what kind of toll does that take on you? Not so much the physical but also “yeah I got to do what I got to do tomorrow”.

Dan:

Yeah, I mean you have to be a mental assassin. you know. You have to be physically and mentally sound to be able to make a team, right? And it is a team sport once you’re on the ice, but if you’re not prepared, you’re not making that team and you don’t have the chance to compete.

You know, a lot of times later on in my career, I wasn’t fighting in those games. So you have to bring a different element to it. You have to be a good team guy, and I love making playlists and connecting with guys. But the role itself was was difficult some nights. For example, I couldn’t sleep that day before my last game. You know I was journaling a lot about Steve and crying in my room because I didn’t I really didn’t want to play, you know? I was done. After Steve died, I was just so done. And I was really out of shape.

They decided to put me in because we already had a playoff spot clinched, and it was Philly, and there are a lot of guys there right that needed to be kind of protected against that team, and I think you guys were out of it that year. So, they decided to put me in, but I just remember sweating. Playing in that first period that, I was out of shape, I had no reason to be playing in that game and for some reason I played really well, the puck was following me around.

And I honestly felt Steve next to me during that first period, and I remember going into the room and just breaking down and crying during the first intermission, and walking out and walking out of the massage room and Johnny Toews came in and said “what’s up?”. And I just felt Steve with me, a lot. It was really heavy and then it was really emotional. And to be honest, you know there was no reason for me to fight Bellemare. You want to change your state of mind, and to be honest I was in a lot of pain, and I wanted to feel something different. Even though it was emotional pain, I wanted to feel that physical pain. Then that fight happened, and then I was I was in the room, and, you know, again emotionally breaking down, crying.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Then the symptoms after that seventh diagnosed concussion were just brutal. I couldn’t look at my phone, and I had to spend about three weeks at home until the symptoms somewhat subsided. While you’re in the game, it’s it’s weird you know, when you’re playing, when you’re stimulated, guys right now they feel healthy you know.

I went to a clinic in 2013. Steve Montador begged me to go during the lockout, I’m like “why I’m not feeling any symptoms”. And I ended up getting treatment this past April, back in 2018 again.

They didn’t tell me then, but they told me when I went back to the clinic, that I was their worst TBI case that I ever seen and they didn’t want to scare me or anything. But that’s scary, you know! And that’s why I do what I do now, and I advocate a proper understanding, diagnosis, and care, because these guys really, truly do not understand the risks that they’re under.

Once you finish playing the game, and you get into the real world — because I’m in the real world right now, I don’t walk out my door, I’m standing in a parking lot, there’s not twenty one thousand people cheering for me right now doing this interview — and you know it’s just, you have to repurpose your life and do some self discovery work. Number one is, you know, get sober to assess the state of your brain, and then move into treatment, and you know that’s that’s what I did for my family, you know. Get as healthy as I can for my family.

Steph:

Dan, this is Steph — I had a stroke in April, so not a traumatic brain injury, but a brain injury nonetheless. So, you know, I know what it’s like to know the words that you’re trying to say and not have them come out of your mouth. And, you know, knowing that you remember things but you can’t quite figure out what it is. How do you personally, how do you get through the bad days?

Dan:

I mean, like today, today is a heavy day, right? You’re talking, you’re looking. Twitter’s a war zone.

Steph:

Yeah, it’s a lot.

Dan:

People don’t understand what what I’m doing, and they think I’m trying to save hockey and I’m not. At all. Right? I have a five year plan in place, and the first part of the plan is to go through the platform of the NHL the way they used me. I’m going to use them to get my narrative to the veteran community, police officers, firefighters, first responders, women of domestic violence, child abuse — people that don’t understand what is going on to either themselves or their family members, so that maybe a parent can recognize the signs and symptoms in their son or daughter and help get them into treatment or remove them from sport.

You know, what a lot of people don’t know, is that there’s 40 doctors in the world right now that make the consensus statements for our kid’s return-to-play protocol: sixteen of those doctors are employed by the NFL, eight of those doctors are employed by the NHL, and six of them are employed by rugby. Now you have three of the major collision sports. 30 out of the 40 doctors are the ones going around, playing off each other, making consensus statements for our kids. And eight of those doctors are in the league of denial. The last league that has yet to admit that repetitive head trauma is linked to CTE, and that’s really scary, you know.

And that’s why I do what I do. That’s the ultimate goal, right, is to educate parents and kids in the risks of playing sport. It’s not about not playing sports, just understand the risks that you’re under and if you want to sign on the dotted line, then you can monetize that if that’s where you want to do.

But then take it a step further, this type of treatment can help optimize athletes, right, and it can make them less susceptible to injury. And so it works on a lot of different levels. Number one for the human being, that’s the most important — he doesn’t play the game susceptible to more head trauma and then leave the game with a chemical imbalance dealing with mental health complications that he’s never been predisposed to. Number two the fans see an optimized athlete. And then number three, there’s less man games lost for the owners and GMs.

So right now, it’s litigation. So it’s a lot of lawyer talk. And the league will not admit it, right, until—they will not make serious changes. I know about the video that they make now. I think it started in 2016, I retired in ‘15 and there was not one word about early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s or anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, none of that. So, they make a pretty fluffy video now, which is which is OK, but still they’re not getting the proper understanding. I truly believe, and I know because guys tell me right, and I’ve gotten probably 30 to 40 plus guys into treatment under the table and that are still playing in the league. And, you know, number one you don’t know that three or more traumatic brain injuries you’re 80% more susceptible to early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease, you know. And these things are scary, right?

So like what I plan on doing, and what I’ve already done is—the next videos that are coming out on the YouTube channel through Chapter 5 foundation are going to be about concussion prevention. And the next one is going to be about an acupuncturist in Beverly Hills who does amazing work with brain injuries. And then the one after that is going to be the University of Cincinnati who’s actually practicing athlete medicine and not sports medicine. They’re not putting the sport before the athlete. They’ve cut their concussion rate by 80% in the NCAA Football League, and it’s not one or two years, it’s been over eight years now. Since 2010. So, if the league wants to actually take action, if I can find these people, I’m sure they know that they exist.

And, you know, I just did a forward for brain damage. And when people see the timeline of when CTE was actually found — which was in the 1900’s — and then they see that the research has been suppressed from 1989 to 2003 when the NFL was at its height, because they have a lot of money and they can do that sort of thing, I think it’s going to open up a lot of eyes. I’m working behind the scenes now with a PhD and a couple of doctors and we’re gonna make our own consensus statements. We’re gonna make our own patient Bill of Rights, and we’re gonna put that out in 2020 when these 40 doctors announce theirs again. And then you can decide which ones you want to follow. And that’s why stay independent of everybody. I’m just a guy on social media trying to educate and trying to get as many people as I can healthy and into treatment.

Kelly:

So I’m glad you mentioned your Chapter 5 Foundation, which you, and your wife, and Ben Eager I think started. And I think a lot of people see you being very vocal about these issues with traumatic brain injury, but I’m not sure a lot of people know that you’re also working to help your fellow athletes transition from life as a professional athlete to what can only be called regular life I guess. Why do you think that transition is so difficult to make?

Dan:

Because, like I said before, we don’t live in the real world. Nobody’s making you an omelet. There’s no omelet station when I get up and go to the rink. Nobody’s making my schedule. Nobody’s telling me my days off — the first part of the year, over 182 days. I don’t get paid bi-weekly over 182 days when I do a job. You know, there’s there’s different rules, right?

That’s why I think hockey players identify with musicians, identify with veterans, identify with police officers, firefighters, first responders. All of these people do jobs that aren’t the real world, right? And so, when we get out of those jobs, it becomes very hard to assimilate back into into real life. And so what I’m trying to do is just get all of those people together, because you can immediately feel comfortable around those types of people right when you get into a group setting or talk about mental health issues — it’s hard to talk about that with somebody who does a 9-to-5 who really doesn’t get it, you know.

I also say this: transition is the human issue, right. And it’s scary. Like, for example, if you go up to a doctor and say ‘hey tomorrow you’re going to have to retire and figure out what to do with your life’, you’re probably gonna struggle you know. And I think family members need this information, and wives, and brothers, sisters, mothers, dads so that they can understand that, hey you know there might be a period of depression, there might be a period of anxiousness, of anxiety. And you know you just take it slow and and then do some self discovery work.

But number one is is treatment. Figure out if you’re hurt. If you’re not, great, then we can do the self discovery and repurpose your life. But if you are hurt, the answer isn’t a job, because you’re going to lose that job anyway. Your health is paramount, or else everything else falls apart. So that’s just kind of what I do with Chapter 5, and there’s a lot of big stressors for guys after they’re done with the game or the is done with them. And I just help them through that in an informal process, and just educate them about the NHLPA insurance and what they need to say to be able to get covered and to make sure that they don’t get every single claim denied because of a preexisting condition, and, yeah, so that’s that’s my mission.

Kelly:

So, given everything that you know now, if you could go back and do it all over again would you?

Dan:

I get that question a lot and I don’t answer it. I don’t live in what ifs.

Kelly:

Okay, that’s fair.

Dan:

You know, I’m standing here right now, and you know, I think what I’m doing, I really enjoy it. I really do, I think this is my life’s purpose. I mean, my grandmother passed with Alzheimer’s, her two sisters and brother both passed, so runs in my family. Neurological degenerative disease runs in my family, and whether I have it or not, I talk about CTE. I only use that word because it’s it’s popular in the media.

What I have a brain injury symptoms. I have brain damage and I have brain injury symptoms. It’s way too early to talk about if I’m going to get CTE or not. So I move forward with proper care and highlighting those treatments that have worked for me and highlighting numerous treatments, you know, CranioSacral, reflexology, massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, functional neurology. You know, there’s tons of stuff that that can work because it’s not a one-and-done type of thing, right.

Sometimes functional neurology doesn’t work, and sometimes reflexology people don’t like it, and then they can’t get down with the CranioSacral and the spiritual side of that, so just highlighting as many treatments as I can and highlighting testimonials so that we can continue to provide hope, because suicide is a means to an end when someone doesn’t have any more hope. So that’s what I’m trying to highlight is just hope.

Bill:

Dan, we talk a lot about the tough guy and warrior cultures prevalent in hockey culture. But I think we kind of brush aside the chemical dependencies that can contribute and fuel these mentalities you talked about, getting treatment at 25. I think a lot has been has come up in the news lately, Clinton Portis back in the news, talking about drinking before games in the NFL. We have all heard about Josh Gordon, Austin Watson’s back in the news. How prevalent really is it like the recreational drug abuse, alcohol abuse in NHL locker rooms? Is it a much bigger deal than we think? Is it just a few cases that get blown up? Like what would you say it’s like? I’m not asking to name names but the culture that is surrounding that hockey culture.

Dan:

I think it’s changed, recently, right? Like with a whole opioid epidemic, like doctors aren’t walking up and down aisles anymore being able to give us four Ambien to get to bed. But that was definitely the case in my career. You’re overprescribed, you’re under educated, and and it’s a problem for a lot of guys. I mean, synthetic heroin, that’s what opiates are. The synthetic heroin made by a doctor in a lab. And it makes addicts out of mothers, firefighters, police officers, athletes.

There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with playing professional sports for some guys, they can operate but they need a little help to operate. During my career there was a lot. There was a lot of substance abuse, and substance abuse is a direct symptom of repetitive head trauma. You don’t understand what’s going on, you’re not predisposed to these mental health complications and what do you do? You look for something to numb it out.

You know, I can’t speak to what it is like now, but, I mean, being an athlete or a musician doesn’t really lend itself to being a healthy healthy drinker. You’re out of the rink at 12 and then you get to the bar and you’ve got two hours. You know, like what do you do? Well, you’re binge drinker now. But when you get out of retirement, or when you get out of the game, having a beer at lunch isn’t that normal anymore, but it was pretty normal after practice. Guys go have a beer, sushi, whatever. A couple more after games, most definitely. How do you get down from being so jacked up and all the Sudafed and all the stuff that’s in you? We’d like to believe that guys can go home, put their hands on their knees, and meditate but that’s just not the case.

Kelly:

Well Dan I really appreciate you answering our questions, you’ve been super forthright, really open and I think that’s part of why people respond so well to you. If our listeners wanted to get involved in the causes that you are trying to promote, or if they can go some place to find some more resources where would you suggest that they look?

Dan:

The Carrick Institute website, Chapter 5’s website, my YouTube channel that I just started —Carbombboom13 on Twitter, and I’m DanielCarcillo13 on Instagram and if you want more information, you can follow all of those things and tap into those resources and yeah. I mean I need to be forthright, I don’t harbor guilt very well, and so I speak very very honestly about this stuff and I think that’s the way that you connect to human beings that don’t know you — you just speak honestly and vulnerably.

Kelly:

Yeah you’re doing super important work and I think it’s really admirable that you’ve decided to take your fame and your career and turn it into something good. So, thank you very much for that and thank you very much for joining us tonight.

Dan

Of course. Thanks guys.