The NHL implemented a program this season that ensures there is a concussion spotter at every game, but like the NHL’s concussion protocol, the spotter doesn’t have enough authority to properly do the job.
If nothing else, Dennis Wideman and Mike Babcock have proved that the NHL’s protocol desperately needs to be equipped with more teeth than it now has. Well, they haven’t specifically, but the contingencies they represent have made things crystal clear.
One is a member of the NHL playing fraternity; the other is one of the 30 men who coach the best players in the world. And as it turns out, neither can be trusted to put the player’s long-term well-being ahead of winning when it comes to injuries that could lead to concussions.
Wideman, as has been firmly established, highlighted how easily the league’s concussion protocol can break down when he basically blew off the Calgary Flames trainer and refused to go to the Quiet Room after taking a hit along the boards last week. He was diagnosed with a concussion after the game, but not before playing about half the game when he clearly should not have.
Babcock did much of the same when he was asked about the Wideman situation. “Well, I think when a player says he’s OK to play and keeps playing, he’s OK to play,” Babcock said Thursday night. Then when he had an opportunity to clarify his comments today, Babcock came out with this to say to reporters: “The trainer and the doctor are under unbelievable pressure from the player and the coach when these things happen. We can all live in a fantasy world and think we don’t want them to keep playing. When a player hardly is bumped and all and you don’t think he should be going to the Quiet Room for 15 minutes because you really need him in the game, in the heat of the action, you want him to play. I think that’s a pretty normal thing. The player wants to play and the player says, ‘I’m not going to the room,’ and the coach says, ‘Come on, what are we doing here?’ and they grab him and take him to the room. That’s their job.”
Except sometimes they don’t do that and it turns out the player played half a game with a concussion.
Do these things make Wideman and Babcock bad people? Does it make them dinosaurs? Does it make them selfish? No, it makes them human. And sometimes humans have to be saved from themselves and their own ways of thinking. It’s why we have seatbelts and it’s also why professional leagues operate with salary caps. As Babcock so aptly put it, we don’t live in a fantasy world.
Which is why if the NHL is truly serious about dealing with this issue – and it might want to be given that the class action concussion lawsuit has now surpassed 150 former players – it has to look at going to the National Football League model when it comes to concussion spotters. The NHL took an enormous and encouraging step forward this season when it introduced the concept of concussion spotters, but it’s clear by the actions of Wideman and the words of Babcock that it simply does not go far enough.
As it stands, concussion spotters in the NHL have one mandate and that is to red flag any player he/she suspects has concussion symptoms. The concussion spotter, who may be an NHL-appointed person or simply someone with an affiliation to one of the teams playing, has no power to remove the player from action.
The NFL, by contrast, beefed up its concussion spotter system this season, having them posted in the press box and giving them the power to stop games with medical timeouts when a player exhibits concussion-like symptoms. Spotters must be certified with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and cannot have been employed by an NFL team in the past 20 years.
The NFL season has a total of 256 regular season games and the NHL has 1,230, so it might be more difficult for the NHL to implement a concussion spotter strategy. But it’s probably not impossible to find two or three independent medical people with concussion experience in each NHL city and have them share the 41 regular season games. And even with the NFL system, there are still concussions that get missed. The league had to launch an investigation this season when St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum was sacked hard and hit his helmet on the ground, but was sent back out for the next play without having him undergo a SCAT-3 concussion test. After the game, he was diagnosed with a concussion.
There is no system that will be 100 percent foolproof, but it’s clear the one in the NHL can, and should, be better. And the sooner it gets taken out of the hands of the people who have a vested interest in the game, the better.