Slovak Hockey Great Marian Hossa Falls Victim To “The Gunk”


June 26, 2017

Allan Stevo

I received a shocking news alert from the Chicago Sun Times: “Marian Hossa out for 2017-18 season; skin disorder could end career”

That was not the most shocking part. The article went on to talk about how Hossa – a slovak born hockey legend in the NHL – had contracted a progressive skin condition that was being fought with medicine that was becoming increasingly debilitating and increasingly ineffective.

After going on to talk about the mysterious skin condition, the last paragraph of the article reads:

Hossa wouldn’t be the first player to retire early because of such an allergy. “The Gunk,” as it was known in the 1970s and 1980s, affected many players, and drove former Hawks and North Stars defenseman Tom Reid out of the game in 1978.

That was a little freaky. What is the gunk? It took a little doing but I finally found a semi-authoritative mention of the gunk at Locker Room Doctor run by Dr. Mike Evans of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto in a piece entitled “The Gunk: a Virulent Oozing Rash”

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.

Hossa, a beloved veteran hockey player on a multimillion dollar contract is certainly getting the most expensive cutting edge medicine money can buy. Sometimes that’s a problem. Auto-immune diseases are a great example of that.

Managing auto immune diseases effectively is beyond the grasp of the mainstream medical community at this time. Sometimes it works, often it does not.

Mainstream doctors throw steroids at any skin oddity they are unsure of. It begins with steroid creams and moves into pills or injections. By chance these things might work. Or perhaps they have zero effect and the body and the disease are just cycling independent of the treatment – even a broken clock is right twice a day. And while there’s a chance that may work, there’s almost a guarantee that enough steroid use will produce significant side effects.

Eventually the doctor may determine there are further systemic issues at play and more drugs get thrown at the patient and their non-responsive illness – drugs that are experimental for all uses, drugs that are experimental for this use, and drugs that are certainly experimental for you. You might end up with challenging chemotherapy medicines like methotrexate, azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, mercaptopurine, or mitoxantrone being used for autoimmune conditions, or even biotherapy drugs like rituximab, infliximab, or natalizumab. But don’t worry, the doctor says – we’ll give you a much lower dose than a cancer patient would get. He might add, we don’t exactly know how it works but it sometimes show excellent results. That’s sort of the broken clock theory of medicine again; I’m surprised by how often I hear it from doctors. We also don’t know how placebos or homeopathics work but they sometimes work. That’s no reason to randomly use placebos or homeopathics but at least they don’t have toxic side effects.

Dealing with what appears to have been a troubling period with an autoimmune disease of my own about five years ago, nothing worked but dietary changes. I say “appears” because I was never able to find a doctor able to give a conclusive diagnosis, nor did I ultimately care enough to hear a diagnosis to push doctors to take a wild guess. Going through that process myself and with others, it appeared to me pretty quickly that autoimmune concerns and their accompanying skin conditions are a near mystery for the medical community.

So, while visiting doctors I turned to people like Dr Mercola and Mark Sisson for advice, people who plenty of main stream doctors might call quacks. I took their advice on a body gone haywire. I took the advice of others and did a lot of experimentation on myself to figure out what worked and what didn’t and to eventually solve this problem. Sisson, like Hossa was once an elite athlete with a great burden of health concerns. He now helps people who were in his situation to get beyond those health concerns. Both he and Mercola have astute minds and keep well read on the latest studies.

That being said, I don’t imagine Hossa has anything to learn from me on this matter. The champion player if he is diligent enough about his own health has certainly had his diet analyzed by the Mercolas of the world. My guess though, and it’s a reasonable guess, that surrounded by high priced doctors, he probably has been steered away from “experimental treatments” that don’t come from the Journal of the American Medical Association write ups or Big Pharma’s labs. Certainly he’s encouraged by high priced doctors to do all the experimenting he wants as long as Pfizer or Eli Lilly developed the product. It’s more likely that a doctor will prescribe an experimental and dangerous pharmaceutical than to ask you to speak to a nutritionist about methodically adjusting your diet and seeing what works.

The instructions of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, from 431 B.C. on diet “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” is either “too experimental” or quackery for many doctors. Meanwhile, with the air of authority that accompanies a white jacket and stethoscope, sometimes even the rich and famous can be led down a bad path by doctors.

A more comforting thought than the fact that Hossa is not getting the full breath of treatment options presented to him, is that the whole issue of his “skin condition” is being overhyped. That is my hope. There is much more advantage to the Chicago Blackhawks if Hossa is deemed physically unfit to play rather than opting to retire.

If Hossa retires, the Chicago Blackhawks are at a tremendous disadvantage under the NHL’s salary cap rules. If he continues on with the team on long term injured reserve, the Blackhawks under the salary cap rules, just scored a huge victory off the ice. In such a situation they have a greater likelihood of replacing the nearly irreplaceable Hossa, who is one of the premier two-way players in the game.

“Absolutely reeks of cap circumvention” writes one suspicious Blackhawks fan.

Marian Hossa, born in Stará Ľubovňa, Czechoslovakia (located in the Prešov region of present-day Slovakia, 20 miles east of the High Tatras, 10 miles south of the Polish border) is one of the most popular and successful Slovak ice hockey players. Hossa comes from an ice hockey-loving family, with his father, František Hossa, and a younger brother, Marcel Hossa, both being professional hockey players representing Slovakia in the World Championships and Winter Olympics. Although Marian Hossa has represented Slovakia in numerous World Championships and Winter Olympics, he remains medal-less – a distinction we are eager to see him part with. Marian Hossa was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1997 as his first NHL team and spent 7 seasons with the team. Later on he played for Atlanta Trashers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroid Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. He won three Stanley Cup championships in Chicago (2009-10, 2012-13 and 2014-15), the highest team honor in hockey. Hossa has been a hero to young Slovaks, Chicagoans, Americans, and hockey aficionados for years.

All of us here at 52 Weeks in Slovakia wish the hero godspeed in his recovery!

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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