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It seems not even concussion spotters can save players from themselves

The league revamped its concussion spotter protocol under the premise that the players and teams couldn't be trusted to make the right decisions. But the latest Sidney Crosby incident shows it's still not working.

When the NHL beefed up its concussion spotter protocol program prior to this season, it was done so with the intention of preventing precisely what happened to Sidney Crosby Monday night. Anyone who watched Crosby go headfirst into the boards late in the first period of Game 6 against the Washington Capitals had a difficult time understanding how the concussion spotters, both at the PPG Paints Arena and in the player safety room in New York, could not have immediately ordered him off the Penguins’ bench and off the ice for further observation.

For his part, Crosby told an interviewer after the game that he had been checked after the first period. “Yup. Yeah. Pretty standard,” was his response. Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan said in his post-game comments that Crosby in fact, did not go through the concussion protocol after the first period.

It’s that kind of thing that the NHL had in mind when it made the changes to the program prior to this season. In addition to the on-site spotters, the league authorized a staff of concussion spotters in the player safety room in New York to remove a player for evaluation if visible signs under the protocol are present following a direct or indirect blow to the head. One of those visible signs is “slow to get up.” Crosby went into the boards after taking a nudge from Capitals defenseman John Carlson with 2:13 remaining in the first period. He took at least nine seconds from that point to get up and start getting back into the play.

Had it been a stoppage in play, nine seconds might not have seemed too drastic. But that amount of time when play is still going on is the equivalent to an eternity. So, yeah, Crosby was slow to get up.

Crosby finished the shift, then stayed out for part of another and jumped back on the ice for a faceoff with two seconds remaining in the period. Then he played the rest of the game with gusto, going head-to-head with the likes of Dmitri Orlov and Jay Beagle, giving every bit as good as he was getting, firm in the realization that he’s a star player and he should simply expect to be targeted with the league having no intention of doing anything to protect him.

Whether Crosby was or wasn’t checked after the first period is a moot point. So is the fact that Crosby came back to the game and played his usual robust style and looked very sharp in setting up a goal by Jake Guentzel late in the game. So is the fact that he suffered a concussion in Game 3 and missed Game 4. So is the fact that it is Sidney Crosby we’re talking about here. The protocol is right there in black and white. He should have been pulled off the bench immediately and evaluated. And this has nothing to do with the Penguins because the new concussion spotter protocol was supposed to take this decision entirely out of their hands. However, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, as quoted in a USA Today story, the spotters didn't even have the authority pull Crosby because the incident didn't meet their guidelines.

When the league revamped its concussion spotter protocol, it did so under the premise that the last people who should be trusted when it comes to these things are the player and the people around him. The NHL did this because players are obstinate and stubborn and singularly focused on playing the game. After all, that’s what makes them the best in the world at what they do. It’s also what makes Crosby among the best of the best in the world at what they do. It was supposed to take team personnel off the hook. No longer would a trainer have to be told to go forth and multiply after tapping a player on the shoulder and telling him to leave the bench. And all of that is completely understandable under the circumstances.

In this case, the players and teams have to be saved from themselves. There’s no way they should be put in the position where they have to weigh the long-term health of a player between the desire to win a hockey game, particularly in the heat of the moment. It’s not fair to them. Which is exactly why a dispassionate, unbiased person who is both literally and figuratively removed from the situation is empowered to make those decisions.

Perhaps Crosby just fell a little awkwardly and was winded. Anyone who cares about the game and the person can only hope what happened Monday night will not have any long-term effects on one of the biggest stars the game has ever seen, one who hasn’t yet reached his 30th birthday, but already has an extensive case file when it comes to brain trauma. At first blush, it looks as though the league emerged from this one, but it might not be so lucky next time.



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