The concussion discussion I: Hockey and the NHL

I don’t remember much, but I know that it happened fast. I was playing a little extra hockey in a rec league. It was full contact, and like so many others, I got caught letting my guard down near some guy who was taking things a little too seriously. Our team was winning, so we put our forwards back on defense and our D-men up on forward. I was playing wing and my D-man made a slow pass up to me and the other the opponent stepped up and made a completely clean hit on me. After being erased, I immediately popped up on my feet. Years of training had drilled into my head not to show any weakness. I made it to the bench, and felt remarkably fine. No coaches or trainers in rec league, so it was really up to me to decide if I was OK. Yup, I’m OK. I played the rest of the game and the only strange thing was that I could not find my upper gear as far as skating. My body felt “loose” and I couldn’t accelerate the way I usually did. Still, I played the rest of the way not really helping or hurting my team in any meaningful way. It wasn’t until the end of the game that I realized the severity of the hit. I was the last one off the ice and lost track of the next last player. I got a few steps away from the ice and realized that I didn’t know which dressing room we were in. In fact, I didn’t know where ANY of the dressing rooms were! I turned back and asked some friends who came to watch which way to go. They showed me the way and made sure I didn’t pass out on the way.

Back on my competitive team, I got my bell rung from a routine hit during the next game. I got up immediately and neither the trainer nor the coaches ever suspected anything was wrong. Inside my helmet though, I was seeing stars. A few games later, I made a big hit and had that funny feeling in my head again. I contemplated whether I should take a break from playing if I couldn’t even throw a good hit, but it was the playoffs and we were eliminated that game. I never had to decide whether I should keep playing or not because I never played competitive hockey again. I estimate that it took some 18-24 months for my head to completely clear. That summer I got motion-sick on completely calm waters about 5 feet from the dock! Something in my head was clearly broken. Time healed me, but I always wonder about these players that play a week after a concussion.

Watching the aftermath of the Aaron Rome hit on Nathan Horton in game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals was stomach-wrenching. Defensemen have a responsibility to be physical along the blueline, but this particular hit was clearly across the line. Although the contact could not have been avoided entirely, Rome certainly should have pulled up and not finished his check so strongly. The puck had been passed off well in advance, so Horton was vulnerable and not expecting a full bodycheck. A blindside check on an unsuspecting player is not only uncalled for, but potentially career-ending. In an interview with the Toronto Star, former NHLer Keith Primeau indicated that, “the hit reflected the lack of respect among players”.

The incident played out against a larger backdrop of concussion injuries in the NHL, and indeed sports in general. Like football, boxing and even professional wrestling, hockey is coming to terms with the fact that concussions can have profound and long-term effects on athletes. Recent advances in both science and awareness have slowly brought the issue out of the shadows. Several flashpoint events occurred this year in the NHL with the loss of Sidney Crosby and Horton to severe concussions.

Preventing players from getting back on the ice too soon has been a major evolution in the NHL, even in the last 10 years. As recently as 2000, Eric Lindros attempted to come back from a series of concussions only to succumb to further injury from a vicious Scott Stevens hit. At the time, there was much controversy about the role the Philidelphia Flyers played in letting Lindros skate too soon after his previous concussions. In contrast, Sidney Crosby was kept out for the remainder of the 2010-2011 season by the Pittsburgh Penguins after his severe concussion. Clearly, strides have been made in our collective understanding of the significance of these types of injuries.

Just look back at the 2003 playoffs between the Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils. Paul Kariya got knocked OUT COLD in game 6 and returned to score later that game. Should he have played? No. Will we ever see a similar performance? Never. And that’s a good thing. We lose amazing feats of courage from the likes of Kariya, but we also avoid losing players by putting them at undue risk. Still, it’s one of the greatest performances that has gone unappreciated because the game involved two teams with little following at a time when the NHL has almost no national audience.

Although medical treatments for concussions have improved, there remain difficult questions about how best to shape NHL rules for player protection. This season, the NHL instituted new rules concerning head shots. In essence, it bans blindside hits where the head is the principle target. In addition, referees can use the “attempt to injure” criteria to cover conduct that doesn’t fall into the previous description and the NHL commissioner can apply “supplementary discipline”. Even with the new rules, however, there are grey areas of interpretation. Hopefully, time will allow for the referees and the NHL to fine tune the application of these rules to protect player safety.

I’m no referee, but I thought I would put up some examples of plays that fall into different categories (like I said, there is a lot of grey area). Some plays are bad luck, some are questionable, some are no-doubters and some make you wonder what the heck was going through their heads.

1. ACTS OF GOD – Clint Malarchuk. Terrible outcome, but really, no rule could ever help avoid this. Some injuries are a result of a fast moving game filled with body contact. Warning, if you are squirmish about blood, don’t watch this video.

2. QUESTIONABLE. Steve Downie hit on Dean McAmmond. The puck was moved only a fraction of a second before the hit, and the elbow wasn’t up, but Downie leaves his feet. It was a preseason game and neither player was probably as sharp as they normally would be during the season.

3. BAD PLAYS – Andy Sutton hit from behind. Sutton is anticipating that Pascal will skate forward and doesn’t let up on the hit when he stops. It happens quickly, but there must be zero tolerance for hits from behind since players can be paralyzed or even killed on such plays.

4. NO ROOM IN HOCKEY FOR THIS – Headshots on Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. These were bad.

The safety of the players is the most important reason for stricter enforcement, but beyond that, imagine how much good hockey we have lost to these injuries. Here are some of the players that lost major time to concussions:

Selanne & Kariya
Pat Lafontaine
Eric Lindros
Keith Primeau

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