VANCOUVER – As the NHL’s scouts and GMs prepared for their final test this past weekend, the league’s coaches also met to go over a variety of topics with NHL officials, including the new rule changes. But there was also a bit of remedial work going on in that meeting and it had to do with concussions.
While the NHL has a spotter in the crowd and teams have their trainers on the bench, a coach can also be a key ally in identifying a player who shouldn’t take another shift until their head is in the right place – and it’s not always easy. But that’s why talking about it as a group was important.
“As coaches, we are in a position of influence with our players,” said the Rangers’ David Quinn. “They turn to us for a lot of direction. So this was an opportunity to refresh what we probably already knew, but it never hurts to go over the concussion protocol and the trends in our league.”
For years now, we’ve known the damage a concussion can do to a player’s long-term health. But penetrating hockey’s gotta-play-hurt-for-the-team culture is difficult.
“The players want to play and come back,” said New Jersey’s John Hynes. “And it’s not fun, particularly in a concussion situation where sometimes you’re away from the team and you can’t do much physical activity and all of a sudden you start to feel better. But you want to make sure you follow the right protocol. Even if they feel like they’re better than they are, they have to be patient. If they have the right support, your protocol to come back will be more correct and better for the player.”
What I find fascinating about some of the current NHL bench bosses is that they used to be tough guys in the league. Arizona’s Rick Tocchet, for example, was as intimidating as they come and he admits that during his days as a Stanley Cup-winning power forward, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to leave a game due to a concussion.
“I might change my tune now, but I would have had a tough time,” Tocchet said. “I’m not sure I would have come out when I played, which is not the smartest thing. A lot of guys now are more diligent with their attitude.”
Craig Berube, an enforcer as a player and now the Cup-winning ‘interim’ coach of the St. Louis Blues, believes that the chance for a head injury now may be even greater than his heyday in the 1990s, even though there isn’t as much fighting going on.
“When I played the game compared to now – the game is so fast,” he said. “That’s why I think there are so many concussions. It’s such a fast game and there’s a lot of force in the hits out there. It’s very important that players make sure they are 100 percent because you’ve got a whole life ahead of you. You’ve gotta make sure you’re healthy.”
That’s the tricky part for coaches. Since many of them played at a high level themselves, they know the competitive nature of their charges. And there is still that philosophy among the players that they don’t want to let their team down by being on the sideline. This became a major topic in the NBA final when Golden State’s Kevin Durant came back early, only to sustain an even worse injury that may cost him all of next season.
“We have to be more diligent,” Tocchet said. “Sometimes coaches get upset because they don’t want that player to go out, but we have to be more diligent on that.”
Tocchet also theorized that because the NHL is taking the matter more seriously now, players may not fake taking a head-shot in order to draw a penalty, knowing that a spotter will have them pulled from a game.
It’s interesting to see what happens in the future on this topic. If the NHL wants to get really serious on concussions, they could move to an NCAA model where all head shots are reviewed by the refs and punished severely. At this year’s Frozen Four, three players were kicked out of the semifinal between UMass and Denver due to head shots and there were long delays because of the incidents. But for Quinn, who coached Boston University before he got his NHL job in New York, the safety of young players is worth it in college.
“If you’re going to err, I’d rather err on the side of safety,” Quinn said. “It’s not an exact science and it’s a very fast game.”
And obviously Quinn wants his NHL players to be safe, too. Being an advocate for them is part of the job now.
“At the end of the day, they’re driven,” he said. “They want to fight through injuries and they consider concussions injuries – but that’s a different level of injury.”
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