Hockey and the Concussion Protocol

Once again the debate about the concussion protocol in hockey is up for discussion. Following a tussle between Montreal Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulie and Columbus Blue Jackets left winger and captain Nick Foligno on December 1, 2015, many questioned whether Beaulie, who suffered a glaring blow to the jaw, should have been sent to the box or off for medical evaluation. On the heels of the Brandon Dubinsky (Blue Jackets) suspension brought on by a back-side cross-check to Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby, and in preparation of the NHL Board of Governors meeting next week, it might be a good time to talk about concussions and the impact they have on players. This discussion normally begins with a reference to Crosby and his concussion history.

Let’s journey back to New Year’s Day 2011 in Pittsburgh. The air was cold as thousands of hockey fans gathered at Heinz field; a stadium usually known for its other tenants, The Pittsburgh Steelers. Today the football field was transformed into an NHL regulation size rink. Quite possibly the biggest events for hockey fans, with the exception of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Winter Classic is played once a year on New Year’s Day. In 2011 the game was between rival teams, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, arguably two of the best players in the NHL, were on opposite sides this night so it was inevitable that the game would be competitive. But no one could have imagined what would happen.

Just before the end of the second period, Caps player David Steckel delivered a seemingly innocent hit on Sidney Crosby. Sidney fell to the ice, but skated off on his own ability and returned to play one shift in the third period. Sidney continued to play in several games before realizing how serious the hit was. On January 5th, Crosby received another hit, this time from Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, crashing headfirst into the boards. It was after this game, when the concussion symptoms had not subsided, that the team decided to send Crosby back to Pittsburgh for more tests. He wouldn’t step foot on the ice again for almost two months. Although Crosby was cautious in his conditioning and return to skating, he continued to run into problems and had many setbacks. It wasn’t until January 2012 that Crosby began to skate with the team again. Crosby is one of the lucky ones; most players who sustain concussions don’t get the opportunity to return to hockey. The Crosby concussion no doubt has played a large role in the NHL’s review of player safety procedures.

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The American Association of Neurological Surgeons defines a concussion as: “a clinical syndrome characterized by immediate and transient alteration in brain function, including alteration of mental status and level of consciousness, resulting from mechanical force or trauma.” Simply put, a concussion is a type of brain injury that is caused by a bump or blow not only to the head, but anywhere else that causes the head to jolt in a harsh manner. The main symptoms of a concussion include headaches, loss of memory, and general confusion. Some of the worst symptoms include seizures as well as constant dizziness. Unfortunately, the style of play in hockey means that concussions are pretty common.

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The number of concussions in hockey players is greater than many realize. For years hockey players have had their bell rung without any change in regulations or preventative measures. Concussions have affected players for decades. For example, Dennis Vaske was playing for The New York Islanders his career was interrupted by a concussion. In a game against The Los Angeles Kings in 1995 Vaske was on the receiving end of a nasty hit from Eric Lacroix. According to The New York Times, “Vaske was clearing a loose puck in his own zone when Lacroix hit him from behind. Vaske went face first into the boards and fell down.” Lacroix received a game misconduct for the hit as well as the five-minute major penalty on the ice. Following the game Lacroix also received a five- game suspension without pay. Three other players with the Flyers had their careers ended by concussions: Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, and Chris Pronger. Eric Lindros career ended after a shoulder to head hit in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals. Keith Primeau’s career ending concussion was caused by an elbow to the head in 2006. Finally, Chris Pronger was concussed in 2011 after taking a stick to the right eye.

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When former Caps player Mike Green suffered a concussion in February 2011 after taking a puck to the head, he missed only two games. He was again concussed 20 days later when he took a hard hit in a game against the Rangers. In all he missed 20 games that season. He was sidelined again for two months in 2014 when his head was slammed into the boards by a Blue Jackets forward. Green told CSN: “If you’ve ever had a concussion you know what it feels like. You almost put yourself at risk going back out there if you’re not able to have the reaction time you need.”  This season Montreal Canadians’ Mike Bournival is just returning to practice after being off the ice for two months with post-concussion symptoms. It is unclear when he will return and what his cognitive capabilities will be when he does get back.

The November 12th suspension of Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog for an illegal head check on Bruins Brad Marchand brought to the forefront the discussion about the long-term effects of concussions. The National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) instituted new procedures to protect players from a secondary impact by giving them time to rest after a possible injury. For example, Rule 48 describes illegal checks to the head as “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted. There have been significant changes to the rule, including that the hit does not have to come from behind to be penalized. Although this is a good step towards better punishing those who choose to deliver head-shots, it does not do anything to change how the game is played.

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Washington Capital’s Michael Latta taking a potentially dangerous flip during Bruins game.

 

Concussions are horrible for anyone, but especially hockey players. Concussions can occur in people of any age, including children, which makes the issue of preventative measures in hockey that much more important. Some, like former Caps coach Adam Oates, wonder if the hits and head injuries at an early age may be a contributing factor to the severity of injuries occurring in professional players. The NHL and the Players Association will need to continue this debate while ensuring the long-term safety of the players. In the meantime, coaches and players alike need to be educated on how to mitigate the risks of concussions from happening in the first place.

Written by Brittney Marcum with contribution from Maggie Marcum

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