Taking a Stand on Concussions

Concussions are more than statistics on games lost and player performance. They are more than media buzz, commentator talking points and a reason to attack the game of hockey. And, ultimately, concussions are more than just a reality of a physical sport. Often lost in all the analysis of what causes concussions is the result and aftermath of them.

Begrudgingly, commissioner Gary Bettman admitted during last month’s All Star weekend that concussion rates are going up in the NHL. He was quick to highlight that they are increasingly the result of incidental contact. So long as no one purposefully goes out headhunting, we’re fine!

These injured players are people with family and friends just like anyone else. That reality hit home for me when listening to Marc Savard as he announced the end of his 2010-11 season. His description of memory loss, headaches and general uncertainty about his health was disturbing to hear. There was definite concern and fear in the voices of all involved during that press conference.

Let’s remember that a concussion is a brain injury. In my books any injury involving the brain is the most worrisome type of injury a person can sustain in sport or life in general. While other injuries can be just as serious – see Kurtis Foster example – concussions are the most prevalent of the serious and life altering injuries in hockey.

The increased level of discussion on concussions by players, media and fans is important and encouraging. The unfortunate aspect is that it results from players being concussed. Savard’s first concussion last March was a major factor in instituting Rule 48. Sidney Crosby’s concussion and now Savard’s second in less than a year have sparked the Is Rule 48 enough? debate. Always reactionary.

There is always a need for ‘more discussion’ and ‘more study’ when NHL management comments on the concussion issue. Few people, especially those within the professional hockey world, are willing to take a proactive stand.

Admittedly, some concussions are fluky. A player can fall awkwardly after a completely clean hit or take a puck off the head. Those are unavoidable aspects of hockey – to use the cliché reasoning. However, there are certain aspects of the game that have bad idea written all over them. Whether that be leading with the elbows or going full speed into a check from behind. Those are disrespectful and dirty plays no matter how you spin it.

An automatic suspension for any hit directed at the head is an important piece of proactively addressing concussions. Injury or not, players should know that they will sit out three games when they endanger another player’s health. If an injury does occur or the intent is obviously malicious, that number of games should go up accordingly. Repeat offenders should also expect a larger suspension. If respect for each other isn’t going to come naturally then it needs to be taught.

During Savard’s Feb. 7 press conference, Peter Chiarelli spoke about the need to look at ideas such as softening equipment. There is little doubt that those innovations and the introduction of new rules such as automatic suspension will improve player safety on all fronts.

For the hockey purists out there, all I can say is that over the history of the game numerous new rules, both large and small, have been introduced and labelled as a threat to the game. Goalie masks and mandatory helmets are two perfect examples of rules that improved safety but also caused uproar. And yet those are integral parts of how hockey is now played. The opposition to those changes is seen as ridiculous in hindsight because safety should always be the trump card.

Looking at hockey through the rear-view mirror is a dangerous approach. The age old “it’s always been done that way” argument is a cop out of seismic proportions. Hockey is a business in the entertainment industry. Like any business it needs to operate with a clear focus on the future. Respecting the past is important, but basing decisions on the status quo leads to nothing but stagnation.

In hockey it can lead to situations where your most marketable asset (Crosby) describes his concussion situation as “really scary” and says missing the remainder of the season “could happen”. What good does that do for the game?

If player safety isn’t a good enough reason for change then maybe someone needs to start looking at how concussions are impacting the finances and image of individual clubs and the league as a whole. Unfortunately, that may be the more effective argument.

If the NHL continues approaching concussions reactively rather than proactively, it will take a serious life changing injury or death as the result of a hit to the head to spark true action. I’d much rather see players go through an adjustment period to learn new rules than see a player in a casket.

Hockey is much more than a game. For the players, hockey is a career and means of supporting their families. For hockey clubs, the league and media it’s a business. For fans it’s a passion. Change is never easy in any of those aspects of life, but that is no reason to avoid the issue.

Taking a stand against all hits to the head is the only sensible approach when dealing with an issue as crucial as concussions. There has been enough indecision on the issue already. Time to pack away the clichés and old school mindset.

Savard concededly said “it’s a fast game” when asked about concussions and the potential for changes.

I can only hope that for the sake of the players, the NHL finally realizes that the speed of the game doesn’t mean safety should be an afterthought.

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