”He went way beyond the limits. That wasn’t a punch. He was trying to grab the player’s eye with his thumb!”
Colin Campbell, then the NHL’s head of discipline, uttered those words in an interview with The Canadian Press back in 2005. The incident he was referring to was a preseason fight between rugged New York Rangers blueliner Dale Purinton and Colton Orr of the Boston Bruins. During the fight, Purinton dug his left thumb into Orr’s right eye. Days later, Purinton was suspended 10 games for eye gouging and subsequently was sent down to the minors. He never played for the Rangers again.
Dale “Diesel” Purinton was no stranger to the penalty box at any point in his career. While playing midget hockey for the Moose Jaw Warriors in Saskatchewan, he racked up 107 penalty minutes in 34 games. He was 16 years old.
Purinton was an enforcer, commonly referred to as a “goon” in hockey parlance. His job was to intimidate the opposing team and protect his team’s star players — usually by using bodily force. That job came with a hefty price, however. He battled constant headaches, nausea, forgetfulness, depression, irrationality and suicidal thoughts during his career, and he developed a drug addiction. Purinton believes he suffered at least 10 on-ice concussions. Yet he kept silent because of the very real fear of being replaced if he spoke up about his injuries.
“I just wouldn’t tell anyone,” Purinton, now 40, said by phone from his home on Vancouver Island. “Our mentality growing up is that you train your whole life to do these jobs and [admitting to being injured] is a sign of weakness. I remember throwing up after a game, but I wouldn’t tell anyone because I knew that they would bring someone else up [in my place].”
Purinton said living with multiple concussions dramatically changed his life.
“I couldn’t finish one task,” he said. “The only thing I could really do is get on my riding lawn mower because it’s the only thing I could focus on for a longer period of time.”
“I got kicked in the chin with a skate, and I landed right on the ice,” Purinton said.
Purinton felt woozy and had to be helped off the ice by his Rangers teammates. That was his final regular-season NHL game. And he was fine with that.
“By the end, I didn’t even want to be a hockey player anymore,” Purinton said. “I was the most depressed and isolated and loneliest I’ve ever been, and that’s when I used the most drugs and alcohol because I just didn’t know how to cope with life.”
Purinton became notorious for his violent antics on the ice later in his career, but he says there was a reason behind it.
“[I was] looking for a way to get out of hockey because something was wrong with me,” he said.
He was repeatedly warned that if he kept playing like a common goon, he would be fired. Acting up was his cry for help. He spent the final years of his career with the farm teams for the Rangers and the Colorado Avalanche before calling it quits in 2007 after being suspended for sucker-punching an opponent.
In the summer of 2015, he hit rock bottom when he was arrested for burglary and assault after he broke into an acquaintance’s home in upstate New York and roughed up the owner. He served four months at a maximum security prison earlier this year. Purinton, who found life among federal inmates to be a far cry from the penalty box, maintains that his fall from grace was “all the result of concussions.”
Purinton has three young sons, all of whom play hockey. Fearing that they could also face concussions, he joined more than 100 fellow former players in a class-action lawsuit against the NHL aimed at holding the league accountable for their life-altering injuries.
“We need to look at their future, as well,” Purinton said. “For me not to do anything would not have been the right thing to do.”
The players allege that the NHL did not do enough to care for its players, including not warning them about the long-term effects of brain injuries. The NHL argues that the players willingly entered the game and should have known the risks involved with the sport.
“It’s hard for me to believe that [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman can still try and tuck this under the rug and just blow it off like these guys aren’t human,” Purinton said. “They are struggling, and they have families and kids, and they are having a very hard time trying to live.”
Purinton owes much of his recovery to his wife, Temple Greenleaf. She first noticed a change in his mental state around 2003.
“I was starting to see signs that his job was not a normal job and that it was taking its toll on him mentally,” she said. “I thought there was a substance abuse problem. He would kind of go up and down with depression and anxiety. It was this vicious cycle.”
Fearing for Purinton’s health, Greenleaf reached out to the NHLPA for help, but she says her concerns fell on deaf ears.
“The union called [former Rangers general manager] Glen Sather, and then they kind of brushed it under the rug and said, ‘Clean up your act,'” Greenleaf said. The Rangers had no comment.
Purinton’s condition got worse after he retired.
“In 2013, I forced Dale’s hand and made him call [the NHLPA]. He spoke to somebody in the union,” she said while fighting tears. “He said that he was having suicidal thoughts, and he needed some help, and he was really struggling. They said they would get back to him, but they just didn’t deem him bad enough.”
Purinton did finally undergo treatment for his substance abuse. In the months between his arrest and his prison term, he spent 11 weeks at the Cedars Cobble Hill Treatment Center on Vancouver Island. It was paid for by the NHLPA.
Now a year sober, Purinton is trying to help others who have been in his skates. In September, he and other former players spoke with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in an effort to draw attention to head injuries in hockey. Within the next year, he hopes to start a foundation aimed at helping other athletes struggling with addiction.
“I need to do my part, so I’m starting a society here in Canada to pay for people’s treatment,” he said. “I’m going to eventually meet with the NHL to work with people with post-traumatic addiction problems and a wide range of obsessive-compulsive behaviors.”
He wants to call the group “Homies Help Homies,” after a catchphrase he heard in a cartoon show.
Greenleaf sees a silver lining in her husband’s suffering.
“He is now doing so much better, and I think the greatest gift through this whole thing is that he wants to help other guys,” she said.
Thirteen years after Greenleaf first feared Purinton’s atypical occupation was causing him irreparable harm, he now has a “normal job.” He is a logger on Vancouver Island.
He still loves hockey. But he wants the NHL to provide treatment for the players who need it — and make the sport safer for everyone, including his kids.
“I want to help people,” he said. “I want to give back. It’s what I was meant to do.”