Hits to the head

Health issues in hockey gain media attention

With publications like The Globe and Mail calling this past summer “one of the saddest in the hockey world,” a critical look at the sport that so many Canadians love seems necessary. The deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak have brought about a newfound awareness of the hidden depression that so many “enforcers”– meaning they are purposefully put on the ice to fight– experience, and the sometimes-devastating effects that this depression can have. Perhaps no less upsetting to many fans is the news that Sidney Crosby still has not been cleared to play after receiving a concussion this past January during a game.

While these events are upsetting, at least they cause people to pay attention to a very serious issues: mainly, depression and concussions. There is no denying that hockey is a violent sport. There is a large debate over whether or not fighting should be banned, the idea being that if it was, both of these issues would be reduced greatly in severity. However, fighting has become an institution in the game and to remove it all together may not be possible.

Regardless of the proper solution to these issues, it is clear that something needs to be done. Lynn Bookalam, head therapist and manager of the McGill Sports Medicine Clinic and an expert on concussions, agrees. “Something has to be done at the higher levels to ensure the safety of their athletes,” she asserts, adding “both for the health of the players and because they are ambassadors to the younger players. If [the younger players] see bashes to the head, they will think it’s okay.”

A concussed player that is receiving an immense amount of media coverage right now is Sidney Crosby. One of the debates revolving around Crosby’s case is whether or not he should retire. Some believe that he has enough money and glory to be able to retire, and should not risk his health by continuing to play. They argue that the next concussion could be devastating. Others make the claim that hockey is Crosby’s calling, and to take that away from him would be like taking away his life.

Bookalam chimes in on this debate, pointing to science. “Right now, the science says that if [Crosby] completes the six step return to play protocol, he has as good a chance to return as someone who has never had a concussion. I don’t have any problem with Sidney Crosby returning to hockey if he has correctly gone through the return to play protocol and has been honest with himself about his symptoms. There is no lie detector, so a lot of it relies on the player’s honesty.”

The solution to the issue of depression in players who act as “enforcers” is much trickier. Many believe that  being put in a position in which you must be aggressive and ready to fight multiple times a week can be psychologically damaging. “I can’t say that an enforcer will suffer from depression. You won’t have any medical professional say so. I know that’s what they are trying to conclude in the news right now,” maintains Bookalam. She does add, however, that if a player becomes injured, as enforcers often do, this could lead to a period of psychological change. She asserts, “It’s not because you are an enforcer. It’s because you can’t do what you normally do.”

Despite all the media attention focused on these matters, Canadians still love hockey and still want to play the sport. There has been no decline in registration at the youth level, confirms Kevin Boston, Director of Marketing and Events for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA). He asserts that the OMHA takes safety very seriously. “Our organization has always been one of the leading organizations in all of hockey to be on the forefront of any safety issue… We were one of the first organizations to implement many of the safety regulations that are in the game today.”

In a press release that the OMHA released on August 25, the OMHA said, “The 2011 Hockey Canada AGM has addressed the issue of head contact and continued commitment to zero tolerance measure in this area.” The press release goes on to outline rule changes that will take effect immediately and will hopefully help eradicate the problem of head contact.

McGill’s Sports Medicine Clinic is also concerned about the safety of their own players and of the younger players of the sport. Like Boston, Bookalam claims that there has been no decline in the interest of hockey. “I am particularly proud of how strict we are with concussions. I have spent a great deal of time helping to share my knowledge of concussions with the community. We have to influence young players on the risk of concussions and the right way to play. McGill has an opportunity to be an ambassador to the younger community,” she declared.