‘I wish I never played hockey’: Former QU men’s hockey player reveals life-threatening effects of ‘intoxicating’ smashmouth culture that has him searching for answers

Riley Millette, Sports Editor

Note: This article is part one of a two-part series exploring the risks involved in contact sports and the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Click here for part two.

Masculinity is forever ingrained in American sports.

Remember the days when a hockey player would slam their helmet into a sheet of Plexiglass after a huge hit?

They would say, “I’m fine, coach.” Or the medical staff would say, “he’s fine, coach,” when that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The repercussions of the rockstar playstyle has caught up to former athletes. Players who were uneducated on the true peril of concussions are suffering today: pain, mental illness, addiction, suicide.

Neil Breen was a star. He played hockey for the Omaha Lancers, a junior league team in the USHL. The stadium was sold out every night he played there — he estimated about 7,000 fans. He called it “addictive” and “intoxicating.”

Neil was a small player, only 5 feet, 7 inches and around 190 lbs during his playing days. During his first game as a Lancer, he fought a mountainous 6-foot-4-inch man on the other team. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. That was his style.

“I think I won, I don’t remember, it was a long fight,” Neil said. “But I remember after that game, I couldn’t hear for like three days. I couldn’t hear a thing. It was like my eardrums were damaged. It was so loud in that building.”

Neil later played hockey for the Quinnipiac Bobcats from 1998-2002. As a smaller player, he had to make up for his lack of size by being a “knuckle-dragger,” as he referred to himself.

He was the tough guy of tough guys, captain of the team in his senior year. He made his career by flying around, making hits and being the bad boy. But it came at a price.

Neil sustained concussion after concussion, almost all of which were left untreated. Hundreds of hits to the head, he estimates. He now regularly suffers from severe anxiety and an uncontrollable temper. Though he’s been sober for close to three years, he’s struggled with alcoholism in the past. Now convinced he has CTE, he knows what caused crippling damage to his head.

He couldn’t quit the thrill of thousands of fans erupting after every goal, every hit, every fight.

“That’s America, man. America wants blood, death and pain … and people are dying later behind the scenes,” Neil said.

Neil’s affliction made his everyday life a struggle that he had to find ways to navigate. Formerly a Connecticut resident that recently moved to Florida, he and his wife, Heather, lived out of a UHaul trailer for a short time. 

After selling their Connecticut residence and before making their way to the Sunshine State, they took a detour to Nebraska to see Heather’s family, then eventually bought a house in Florida to complete the two-month road trip. They tried to make the best of it, turning it into a fun family expedition.

“We were supposed to do this fitness thing on the road, people were gonna follow us on YouTube and see how joyful it was to get stuck in a tin fucking can,” Heather said.

But Neil being cooped up in a confined space with his family wasn’t the answer to solving his mental health problems. 

It was almost the end of his and Heather’s marriage.

“Well, obviously, we didn’t make one video because it wasn’t fun,”Heather said. “He’s driving and he’s pulling a 32-foot trailer behind us, we had kids screaming and this and that, like it didn’t help. It didn’t help his mindset at all. I didn’t think we were gonna make it.”

Heather fought through tears as she explained, in front of her husband, why she thought their marriage might not have lasted. They met when Neil was playing for Omaha, and Heather was a bartender. Their attraction blossomed through Neil’s presence on the local hockey team, and led to marriage which has lasted five years and is still going.

“Neil was the bad boy of the team, he fought a lot so he had his big fan section,” Heather said. “And I actually thought he was an asshole. He still is an asshole, I just married him now.”

Heather’s wisecracks are an important part of their connection. She described herself more than once as a “smartass.” She likes poking fun at Neil, and he likes giving it right back to her. That was their thing for a long time while they were dating and during part of their marriage.

But when his symptoms reached their peak around the time of their move to Florida, the playfulness in their marriage evaporated.

“I say something smartass thinking I’m being funny, and it pissed him off or hurt his feelings or something and then he just flipped and he just screamed,” Heather said. “So for me to have to like, step back and walk on eggshells, it kind of feels like I’m put…”

“It’s like…” Neil, who was sitting beside her, interjected.

“This is my interview,” Heather playfully snapped back.

The interruption from her husband gave her a moment to regroup, as it was emotional for her to describe how serious Neil’s illnesses were. It was a real-time example of the connection that made them a match in the first place.

Heather used her humor to take a step away from her emotions, and while she laughed, just for a second or two, Neil made eye contact with her through the tears in her eyes.

Through the blurriness, Heather looked back at him.

Former Quinnipiac men’s hockey captain Neil Breen (left) with his wife Heather (upper center), his son Seamus (right) and his daughter Jesse (lower center). (Contributed by Neil Been)

Neil played for the Quinnipiac Bobcats from 1998-2002. He flew around for loose pucks and made headfirst hits — the dirty work few players want to take on. When he came off the ice for a line shift, the trainer would pull him aside after seeing him wobble to his spot on the bench.

He did whatever he had to do to get back on the ice.

“The mentality was, ‘Hey, Breener, how many fingers am I holding up?’” Neil said. “And I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, I can’t see that far anymore.’ ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ I’ll be like, ‘One, fuck you.’ And that’s funny right, like we laugh at that, but that’s literally how it was.”

Neil knew he took too many high hits without taking the proper precautions, and that the old-fashioned “finger test” was probably not enough. But his reason for keeping his injuries to himself was bigger than just wanting to play more minutes.

He was living his dream. As a small player, he knew playing professionally in a serious capacity was out of his reach. Playing NCAA hockey was his ultimate goal, second only to getting his tuition paid for. It placed Neil in a difficult situation when he skirted through the Swiss cheese concussion protocols.

“I knew that shit wasn’t right,” Neil said about the concussion protocol. “But I’m in the place that I’ve been trying to get to since I was four years old. So I’m not saying shit, I’m not gonna talk to the trainer. Like, hell no, my parents can’t pay for college. Various people have been like, ‘Dude, you probably shouldn’t play hockey anymore if you’ve had that many concussions, right?’ But when you’re a player that is getting their college paid for and you’re surviving, you’re chasing your dream, you don’t hear any of that.”

Huge strides have been made in recent years regarding the treatments of head injuries and concussions since the days of the “finger test,” which is now used more as a comedy bit than a medical examination. Dr. Robert Cantu, medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, has focused on concussion diagnoses in football and has found that hundreds of thousands of other athletes also misrepresent their concussion status.

“60% of (football players) said after the season, where there was no playing time involved and no coach had to hear what they said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had that during the season,’” Cantu said. “And a number of them said, ‘We’ve actually had that multiple times.’ The concussion rate for football at that time was around 5%. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of concussions were being missed.”

The new wave of concussion awareness challenged the age-old culture of being tough and staying out on the ice no matter what. Cantu said the average football player takes 800 hits to the head every season. Even though there are less direct head-to-head hits in hockey, the hits are at a much higher velocity.

But Neil’s career came before that awakening. Even though he said the athletic trainers took concussions seriously, there wasn’t a heightened emphasis on them like there is now. As a result, he became more familiar with the sensation of a concussion, thanks to fight after fight, hit after hit.

“Have you ever almost passed out?” Neil said. “You’re almost hanging upside down, and then you stand up really quick, and you get like this tingly kind of white fuzz? That happened all the time, when you made a really, really hard collision.”

The damage done to his brain has left a catastrophe behind. Crippling anxiety is a regular part of Neil’s life, even to the point where he can’t go inside a hockey rink. He had to give up coaching, a job he held in the USHL and NAHL, because he would “freeze up” every time he went near the ice.

His specific case was unique because he tried a flurry of different medications, and he said none of them worked. This happens to many others as well, but it put a stress on him and Heather. It frustrated her not knowing why Neil wouldn’t take his medication, because on the outside, she said it looked like they helped him.

But this was before Heather knew everything about her husband’s mental health. She didn’t know that even though the medication may have put on the illusion that they were working, his mind was still wracked with anxiety.

“To me, that doesn’t make sense,” Heather said. “It’s like, just don’t be an asshole, just take the pill, you know? Because it worked from my point of view, because it calmed him down. But I didn’t know he’s fighting demons in his head.”

Since he kept his health issues to himself, she was left on the outside, wondering why he wouldn’t take something that she thought would help. But that’s part of what made Neil’s case so impactful. Wherever he turned, there was no help.

Every therapy session, every medication, every possible avenue was a dead end.

“We’ve had those discussions so many times, like, ‘Well, maybe you’re bipolar, and so let’s just up his dose of Zoloft, or you name it. Sertraline, or whatever,’” Neil said. “So, I’ve gone through all of that, and it’s all garbage, man. I can’t afford half the treatment that they want me to do now. And it’s rough, man. It’s rough on my family.”


Neil was the enforcer when he played in college and junior hockey. Back then, it was a job that needed to be done.

He obliged. Having the insight now on the damage players are doing to their bodies, it’s impossible for Neil to forget.

Seattle Kraken forward Mason Appleton, whom Neil coached during his time with the Tri-City Storm, was a recipient of that type of coaching.

“Breener taught me what it was like to play the game the right way,” Appleton said in a written testimonial for Neil’s business, Athletes and Coaches United. “He preached honest, two-way, hard nose hockey. The type of hockey that wins in the postseason.”

Appleton, standing at 6 feet, 3 inches, has the size that Neil never had. Formerly a Winnipeg Jet, Appleton was selected by the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. The knowledge he learned from Neil was a major reason Appleton’s NHL career continues to trend upward, and nhl.com analyst Dan Rosen noticed that trait.

“The Kraken clearly want forwards who are smart, physical, fearless, hard to play against, versatile and have offensive upside,” Rosen said.

“Physical” and “fearless.” Sounds familiar.

That’s how Neil taught his players. He wanted to impart in them the trait that made him successful during his playing days.

“To make it to the NHL, you gotta be tough, you gotta play hard,” Neil said. “And I had to coach that way for 20 years. I had to instill in my players that you had to play physical, you got to bang, you got to smash. And I want to take all of that back. It’s like this vicious cycle that you can’t escape.”

Neil Breen coached in the USHL for one year and the NAHL for one year. (Contributed by Neil Breen)

Concussions and CTE are now at the forefront of the injury conversation, and have been for a number of years. There have been plenty of stories of lawsuits and suicides of former players over the past half-century detailing how sports leagues needed to address the issue.

Even though concussion protocols were strengthened, medical science can’t solve the chief issue that leads to concussions: culture. Players from every sport have fallen victim to the agony of CTE and other mental illnesses resulting from head injuries, only because they didn’t speak up about it.

Neil Breen was an enforcer. There was no doubt about it. It takes some serious grit to fight a player nine inches taller than you on your very first night as a junior hockey player. He was tasked with being the junkyard dog of the team, meaning he had to be tough on the ice. But the lines get blurred between toughness on the ice and toughness off it.

At what point is it no longer tough to deny having concussion symptoms to trainers? Or to knowingly play through concussions? Or to refuse treatment for a head injury for a fear of losing playing time, just because you’re supposed to be the “tough guy?”

“The enforcers were shown to have a higher likelihood for CTE than people who just played the sport in a skill manner, say a Wayne Gretzky or something like that,” Cantu said.

College hockey was the light in Neil’s life. Once he was done living out his dream, he remained involved in the game through coaching. It was a pillar of his personality.

Now the light in his life is his family, who he said has “saved his life.” His wife Heather, his two children Jesse and Seamus and his chocolate lab-Weimaraner mix Howie are providing a solid foundation for the rest of his life.

But his love of hockey almost got in the way of all of that. Neil’s mental health struggles have changed him completely.

The guy who many saw as the nasty, hard-as-nails type has entirely shifted his priorities. Instead of the guy who would be at the very bottom of the scrum, Neil is now the guy who questions the very idea of contact in hockey.

Neil uses his story as a cautionary tale. If he could go back, he would do a lot of things differently. His anxiety, his depression, his short temper are all results of his relentless style. Now almost 20 years removed from the end of his college career, his reflection of his former glory days offers insight into one of the most prevalent issues in all of sports.

“Mistakes were made and they’re still being made,” Neil said. “I’m fresh off of being a coach in junior hockey and the idea of contact and taking that out of the sport, you get laughed at for doing that. And now I wish I never played hockey.”

Editor-in-Chief Michael Sicoli contributed reporting to this story.