TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The best thing you can say about the NHL employing concussion spotters beginning this season is that it’s a good start. It doesn’t go near far enough yet, but it adds another layer of identification it didn’t have before.
According to Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports, the league will introduce spotters at all of its 1,230 games this season whose sole purpose will be to watch for visible signs of concussions and alert training staffs. The NHL will employ two spotters per game, but the actual spotting will largely be done by people who work for the teams. NHL teams will have one designated person both at home and on the road who will be close to the bench watching for players showing signs of concussions.
A lot of teams have been doing this for the past couple of seasons and the league has been encouraging teams to have people in place to identify possible concussions, but now it will be formalized. “It’s something we’ve been doing for the past couple of years, but I think having somebody doing that as their sole job makes a lot of sense,” said Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “There’s a lot going on in the game and a lot of times your guys are following something away from the puck and might not pick up on it. I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
The NHL people will track the game and teams will be able to cross reference their findings with them, but the NHL people will only be pressed into service if the team requests it or does not provide a spotter of its own. And this is where the whole thing falls a little short of what the National Football League has done. The NFL has its own concussions spotters who are employed by the league and have no affiliation to any of the teams. None of them have a skin in the game and can be completely objective.
Another flaw is that the concussion spotters will not have the authority to pull a player from a game. Their job will be to look for visible signs of a concussion, then alert the training staff, which will then determine the player’s status. Teams are no longer so short-sighted that they would allow a player to return to a game who shouldn’t, but having someone with no ties to the team and giving him or her the authority to hold a player out would eliminate any possibility of that happening.
“I feel very comfortable saying to you that our doctors have the health of our players No. 1 on their priority list,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “Whether it’s a tie game or whatever is going on, if we have a doctor spotting, which is one of the people we’ve identified, the health of our players is No. 1. If there’s any doubt whatsoever about the health of one of our players, get him out of the game and check.”
But when a team goes on the road, the doctors usually don’t travel with them, so that job will be left to someone who normally goes on the road with the team, such as a trainer or someone who does video. “My message as a manager to the people who are spotting is the health of the players is of the utmost importance. If you have any doubt at all, get him out of the game.”
Having concussion spotters is a good thing. Ensuring every one of them is independent and giving them the power to pull a player from the game would be even better. Because as anyone who has dealt with athletes knows, the last person who should be trusted to be forthright and honest about his state of mind is the person who has been injured.
Whether the NHL is responding to legal issues it faces when it comes to concussions or is being proactive really doesn’t matter. Last March, the league tried, and failed, to have a class action concussion lawsuit dismissed and the New Jersey Devils recently announced that Ryane Clowe will be forced to retire due to concussion symptoms.
Would having a spotter have prevented Clowe from having to retire? Would it have proved the courts that the NHL was doing everything in its power to protect the former players who are now suing the league? It’s impossible to say, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now the league needs to take a bigger step.