NHL has a long way to go when it comes to concussion protocol

In just his second game back after missing four games with a concussion, New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh took an elbow to the head from Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night.

Whenever one of the NHL’s miscreants steps out of line, we here at usually flag the play and present it along with the headline: “Suspend him or not?” We will not do that with Leo Komarov’s elbow to the jaw of New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. We will not insult your intelligence.

Of course Komarov should be suspended for producing a textbook play ticked off every violation box of Rule 48, the one that governs headshots in the NHL. In just his second game back after missing four due to a concussion as the result of a sucker punch from Wayne Simmonds, McDonagh took a blatant and vicious elbow to the head from Komarov that will be reviewed by the Department of Player Safety. Komarov will make the trek across the Air Canada Centre to the NHL offices for a hearing and will be suspended. We’re thinking at least three games.

On a night when we should be talking about how Antti Raanta stole a game in which the Rangers were badly outplayed, we’re once again talking about headshots and the NHL’s policy when it comes to governing them. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he did not know whether McDonagh, who struggled to get back to the Rangers bench and seemed visibly affected once he got there, was flagged by the NHL’s concussion spotter. He would not say whether McDonagh went through the SCAT-3 concussion test or went through the league’s concussion protocol. He would only say that McDonagh was not available for the second period.

(When asked about it after the game, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had a pretty typical response: “Leo plays hard. He’s not a dirty player by any means, but I know their guy was kind of crouched and it’s unfortunate.”)

But here’s the thing. Komarov’s penalty came at the 18:58 mark of first period. But in what is a direct violation of the league’s concussion protocol, McDonagh was not removed from the bench. Instead, he spent the last 1:02 of the period on the Rangers bench, then did not come out for the second period. We at have a copy of the league’s concussion protocol, which reads that any player showing signs of a concussion, “shall be removed as soon as possible (italics added) from the playing environment by club medical personnel for an acute evaluation.”

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The Rangers had the entire play stoppage after McDonagh got to the bench, plays the last 1:02 of the period to get him the Quiet Room, but chose to wait until the period was over. Does that sound like as soon as possible to you?

If there is one thing we’ve learned over the past couple of weeks, it’s that the NHL’s concussion protocol needs some major fine-tuning. It’s not exactly in disarray, but when a player can tell a team medical staff member that he will not go to the Quiet Room, as was the case with the infamous Dennis Wideman incident, there is something clearly wrong.

Speaking of Wideman, the biggest bombshell that came out of his hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seemed to be a text message that he sent to a teammate that seemed to betray the remorse he displayed for crosschecking linesman Don Henderson after being concussed eight seconds earlier. I beg to differ. In fact, the biggest bombshell, and the most blatant flaw in the league’s concussion protocol, was actually included in a footnote Bettman wrote on page 18 of his 22-page ruling. In it, Bettman wrote, “I note that Mr. Wideman gave a post-game interview in which he essentially denied having been ‘woozy’. Mr. Wideman testified at the hearing that he had been instructed to give a misleading answer if asked about his condition and he followed that instruction.”

If that’s the case, the Calgary Flames failed their player. And by not removing McDonagh from the game immediately, the Rangers failed their player. Clearly, the NHL has a long way to go on this file. If you’re going to have concussion spotters, they have to be there for more than just a public relations exercise.

And the league is going to have to come to grips with the notion that an infraction that results in a brain injury is more serious than other infractions. Until those things happen, players will continue to be on the sidelines with bruised brains and the game will be lesser for it.