TORONTO – For John Tavares, it came down to peace of mind.
The New York Islanders forward was well aware of the concussion issues a number of his fellow NHLers were experiencing before he found himself feeling a bit dazed. Tavares was caught off guard by Dallas Stars forward Adam Burish during the opening game of the regular season when he got hit while skating backwards through the neutral zone.
After staying down on the ice for a brief moment, the 20-year-old made his way to the dressing room and would end up sitting out the next three games. Tavares didn’t experience any of the severe symptoms associated with a concussion—he rode a stationary bike the day after the hit—but he was also in no rush to return to the lineup.
Both he and the Isles wanted to make sure everything was fine.
“I skated off myself (and) I remember everything that happened,” said Tavares. “All of the testing we did immediately in the room, I did pretty well. But I think as a precaution, we wanted to take it slow. I understood that of course—I know head injuries and concussions are a major issue right now in the game.
“It’s tough seeing a lot of guys with what they’re going through.”
A number of factors have recently thrust the issue into the spotlight: Both Philadelphia’s Ian Laperriere and Boston’s Marc Savard remain sidelined with post-concussion symptoms and acknowledged during training camp that they probably shouldn’t have played in last year’s playoffs; several players, including Tavares, suffered head injuries early in the season; and the league instituted a new rule banning blindside hits to the head.
And then there’s the case of Paul Kariya. He spent last season with the St. Louis Blues and was forced to sit out six games with a concussion in December after being elbowed by Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta. Kariya returned for the final three-plus months of the season, but announced over the summer that he was going to sit out a year because of post-concussion symptoms.
The 36-year-old hasn’t granted an interview since the announcement was made via press release. Kariya’s agent Don Baizley says he continues to work closely with doctors.
“He wants to see what he can do about getting his health back so that he doesn’t have any of his symptoms,” Baizley said Tuesday.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have been proactive with the concussion issue. They instituted a program in 1997 that was the first of its kind in professional sports—developing an evaluation and management protocol while mandating that all players undergo baseline testing.
The work continues this week with a two-day conference on concussions at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where parties from all corners of the hockey world have gathered to discuss the issue. Among the attendees are Dr. Ruben Echemendia, the league’s neuropsychologist, and Dr. Paul Comper, an NHLPA consultant who has been performing a study along with Michael Hutchinson on what kind of hits cause concussions.
A sampling of head injuries from the first couple weeks of the season suggest that they occur in a variety of ways. Some are obvious—Buffalo’s Jason Pominville was knocked out after being hammered into the boards by Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson last week—while others, like Burish’s hit on Tavares, happen in a more innocuous way.
“He didn’t hit me in the head,” said Tavares. “The way I fell, my neck kind of snapped pretty good. Obviously, I didn’t see it at all, I didn’t expect it. It kind of rung my bell a bit since I didn’t expect it.”
There are typically 75 documented cases of concussion each NHL season. Roughly half of those occur as a result of blindside hits that are now considered illegal in the rulebook.
As a result, there is some hope that the number of concussions might decline over time. In the meantime, players accept the risks that come with playing a physical sport.
“It’s part of the game,” said Tavares. “There’s always the risk of things like that happening.”