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The NHL’s headaches

The NHL is back; and so are concussions

The National Hockey League (NHL) started its season on October 8, which means a full year of highlight-reel goals, dramatic overtime victories, goalies standing on their head, and so much more. But it also means another thing has arrived: concussions. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that alters its function. Effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with concentration, memory, balance, and coordination. With the high speed and full contact nature of hockey, concussions have become more and more common in the NHL. When approaching this problem, however, the league remains apathetic at best, and negligent at worst.

In 1997, the NHL implemented a concussion policy, making it the first professional sports league to start a working group that focused on the study of concussions. They created a neuropsychological baseline testing program, and claim to be working on and continuosly updating the program based on newer research. Ruben Echemendia, the Director of the NHL’s Neuropsychological Testing Program and Co-Chair of the NHL/NHLPA Concussion Working Group, claims that this will improve ‘‘conditions for players”- but has it really? Concussions are injuries that can take out the most talented players for an entire season in the blink of an eye.

Take the case of Sidney Crosby. Most NHL fans would consider Crosby to be one of the top players in the league. In just his second season, Crosby was awarded the Art Ross Trophy for receiving the most points in the NHL, becoming the only teenager to ever win a scoring title in any major North American sports league and has been named an All-Star multiple times.

On January 1 and January 5, in 2011 Crosby suffered blows to the head from Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman, respectively. In both cases he did not see the hit coming. He missed the final 41 games of the season after experiencing several concussion symptoms. He also missed the first twenty games of the following season due to nagging symptoms, but was finally medically cleared to play against the New York Islanders on November 11, 2011.

Crosby is arguably one of the most talented players in the league; we have seen him deke through players and score numerous game-winning goals. The ugly nature of concussions is that one hit can destroy a season; in Crosby’s case, two hits for him made him miss 61 games in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Even when Crosby felt better it only took one more hit from David Krejci to put him out for another forty games. He returned in March of the following year and was able to finish the season.

Usually the saying goes, ‘with risk comes reward’- but what about ‘with reward comes risk? Most professional athletes are putting themselves at physical risk simply by participating in these high-intensity sports. Although the nature of the sport is high-contact, it is the league’s responsibility to put rules in place to prevent the types of hits that lead to career-ending injuries and long-term health concerns.

Although current fans know of Crosby and his injuries, he is not the only professional hockey player to experience concussions. Some of hockey’s greatest players including Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Keith Primeau, and Marc Savard all sat out for lengthy periods of time due to concussion-related injuries.

In the 2013-14 season, concussions in the NHL were at an all-time high. Within only the first three weeks of the season, which included 136 games, there were over ten concussions or suspected concussions.

In July 2013, an extensive study done by Dr. Michael Cusimano, whose specializations include Clinical research in neurosurgery, he and his team found that there are 5.23 concussions or head injuries per 100 NHL games. This study was published two years after Rule 48 was introduced, finding that even though Rule 48 was supposed to reduce the number of concussions, it has not been efective. Rule 48, according to the NHL’s official rule book, states that an illegal check to the head, or “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and is the principal point of contact, is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit, or whether the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.”

This new rule will penalize all hits where the head is the primary point of contact. The previous rule only made blind-side hits illegal, but now the penalty will also be based on whether or not the player is putting himself in a vulnerable position or if the hit is unavoidable.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and league representatives have been aware of how severe concussions have been amongst players, but it seems like the only changes that have been made in recent years are to gameplay rather than to rules to improve the health and safety of its athletes.

In the summer leading up to the 2014 NHL season, the league imposed new rules which included the expansion of the size of the goalie’s restricted area behind the net, new game misconduct penalties, diving and tripping penalty reviews (including fines), as well as new overtime and face-off rules.

The league’s competition committee has manipulated the rules this season, primarily in an attempt to speed up the game and generate more offense, which may have its consequences. With a quicker game speed comes the opportunity for more high-speed collisions, some of which may end up being to the head.

Since the league’s games have commenced on October 8, there are already six players on TSN’s injury report list with head-related injuries. Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins and Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers are two players that have been placed on the injured reserve due to injuries from previous seasons. Both have post-concussion syndrome, where symptoms may persist for days, weeks, or months after inital injury. Forward Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes was diagnosed with a concussion after getting hit by Washington Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen. Colorado Avalanche forward John Mitchell is out with concussion-related symptoms, Washington Capitals forward Aaron Volpatti is out with neck-related injuries, and Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer left midway through a New York Rangers game after a collision where he hit his head.

If the NHL’s plan is to speed up gameplay, they’ll also need to plan how to deal with the amount of head-and concussion-related injuries they will face this season. On March 2, 2013, the Montréal Canadiens played the Pittsburgh Penguins, ending in a score of 7-6 – does that sound like the NHL really needs to improve scoring? This is not to say that all of the games end in this high of a score, but what if that game were to be played this season with all of the new rules put in place?

The league doesn’t need to improve the speed or scoring of the game, they need to learn how to prevent injuries. The average length of an NHL career is 5.65 years, and it is an easy assumption that some of those were due to career-ending injuries. With five concussions per one hundred NHL games, it’s absurd that the league hasn’t taken a stronger and more in-depth approach to injury prevention.