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They called it the plague and the creeping crud, but mostly it was known, and feared, as the gunk: a virulent oozing rash that afflicted players across hockey in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, forcing several of them out of the game altogether. “It’s a mystery,” was the diagnosis of Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman. Doctors called it contact dermatitis, but even they were largely baffled by what exactly they were dealing with. “We don’t know what’s going on completely,” investigating dermatologist Dr. William Schorr confessed in 1976. By then, an estimated 70 NHL players were suffering, along with uncounted others in junior and minor leagues.
The NHL decided it wasn’t concerned enough by the outbreak to mount its own investigation. “It’s the type of thing the individual clubs themselves would have to be involved in,” executive director Brian O’Neill said while Dr. Schorr puzzled over symptoms. By 1979, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta was getting ready to start a study.
No word on where that went. Back in the rinks, most cases of the rash resembled psoriasis, sometimes in its later stages oozing a yellow pus. Often it started on the hands before spreading wherever the player’s body came in contact with his equipment. Was dirty old gear to blame, dyes, detergents, tanning agents from leather? Theories abounded. A nervous condition related to the anxiety of scoring droughts and playoff pressures? A reaction to Zamboni fumes? Fibreglass from sticks? As dermatologists treating players agreed that the rash wasn’t communicable, team trainers struggled to curb it while doing their best to minister to its victims with cortisone-based ointments.
Canadiens centreman Jacques Lemaire ended up spending a week in hospital in the early ’70s. “They had me bathing in lotion,” he told the Times. “They had to put me on sleeping pills every night, the itching was so bad.”
A dermatologist was able to help cure Clark Gillies of the New York Islanders. “He said it was something to do with bleach and detergent and the nylon in the equipment,” he said. Meditation soothed another Islander, defenceman Jean Potvin, when nothing else would. “I know I was a lot more relaxed and I never had any of I again. I have to think it’s a nerve symptom.”
None had it worse than Tom Reid. A defenceman who started his career with the Chicago Black Hawks, he went on to ply the blueline for ten years as a Minnesota North Star before finding himself gunked out of the game in 1978.
“It was a gradual thing,” he says. “It started about the size of a dime on my arm. Then it got bigger. It went down my side and it just started to spread. As soon as I was off the ice, in two weeks it was gone. If I came back to the ice, play a few games, it would come right back again.”
“We changed equipment. They covered me in creams, they covered the equipment. I changed underwear, t-shirt, after the warm-up, at the end of every period — it just got worse.”
He was getting pills, injections of steroids. He spent 11 days in hospital to start off the 1975-76 season. At one point, he said at the time, he was getting 30 shots a day to help in the relief effort.
“It was pretty painful. It was at the point where my whole side was just pus. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d be wrapping towels around my body, which helped — the problem was when I had to take the towels off. I couldn’t sleep — for a while I was sleeping sitting upright in a wooden chair. It got to the point by the end where they couldn’t give me any more cortisone. I had to retire.”
It was ten years later before doctors came up with anything resembling an answer to the gunk mystery — too late for Reid’s career. In 1988, a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ medical staff helped identify one of the causes: the use of formaldehyde in the manufacture of equipment as a way of preventing mildew and maintaining colour.
“Once we figured out that was the problem, we had a good, quick solution to it,” Dr. Don Groot said in 2000. This (surprisingly specific) one: the addition of a cup of powdered milk to the second rinse cycle of a wash, he said, seemed to do away with both the formaldehyde and the gunk it bred.