While it’s debatable whether hockey is doing enough to pin down and overcome the scourge of concussions, you can’t say the NHL Players’ Association isn’t doing more to bring NHLers up to speed on the dangers of head injuries. Indeed, it’s taking serious steps - and absorbing the considerable financial costs associated with those steps - to stress the proper protocol for dealing with hockey’s most consequential physical ailment.
For the first time in NHLPA history, and at the request of executive director Don Fehr, the players’ union brought a doctor/concussion specialist to every stop in the annual 30-team fall tour, which concluded last Friday. The doctors - NHLPA medical consultant and Toronto-area emergency-room doctor John Rizos and Michigan neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher - spoke to each group of players and educated them about the potentially catastrophic ramifications of playing through a head injury.
The contents of the meetings were kept confidential, but it’s easy to see how the doctors could point to the example of recently returned superstar Sidney Crosby, who played just four days after suffering his first concussion at the 2011 Winter Classic and suffered another one in that game against Tampa Bay. He was sidelined for nearly 11 months after that, something NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider believes could have been avoided.
“The case of Sidney really brought a lot of issues to light - the most important being that if he would’ve been held out of the lineup after the first hit in the Winter Classic, chances are he would’ve had a full recovery and been back playing, whether it was later last year or at the beginning of this year,” said Schneider, who attended a handful of the fall tour meetings and saw increased awareness and interest in concussions from current players. “I definitely feel comfortable saying he would’ve been back a lot sooner.”
As we’ve seen in the way the St. Louis Blues have been extremely patient with concussed winger David Perron (who has been out more than a full year after being hit by San Jose’s Joe Thornton last November) and the downtime afforded to Leafs goalie James Reimer (who has been out for the past month with concussion-like symptoms), teams are now being significantly more careful with their top players. But the fringe NHLers - the guys on two-way contracts who know they could lose their jobs to American Leaguers at any point - may not be so willing to report concussion symptoms.
That’s something Schneider and the PA are well aware of. And that’s part of the reason why they made sure to take on the not-insignificant financial costs of flying doctors across the continent just to have a mere 15 minutes in front of each team of NHLers. In providing players with real-life instances of NHLers who’ve made the wrong decision and paid for it dearly, they want all union members to know there is concern for them regardless of where they are in hockey’s food chain.
“We absolutely addressed (fringe players not reporting symptoms) and used a couple examples of players we knew who had come back too soon and ended up having longer-term injuries,” said Schneider, now in his second year as special assistant to Fehr. “It’s a definite concern. Our immediate goal is to give them enough information that they can make a decision on their own. We encourage them to err on the side of caution.”
The union also made a point of asking players to keep a watchful eye on their teammates for any sign of concussion symptoms.
“We have stressed to players that if they see teammates not looking or behaving right, or they think something’s wrong, to encourage an open dialogue with them,” said NHLPA associate labor counsel Maria Dennis, one of the union’s go-to voices regarding concussions. “(The injured player) may not recognize symptoms themselves. The message is we encourage teammates to stand up and protect their teammates. You wouldn’t let your friends drive home drunk - you’d take the keys away from them and this is the same theory.”
That said, don’t expect to see the PA lobbying for mandatory sit-out periods for all concussed players. They believe the science around the problem isn’t exact enough to dictate a one-size-fits-all solution and instead look at each situation on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s difficult because players handle things differently,” Schneider said. “Some players are able to rebound from concussions easier and some need more time to recover. To say you’ll handle every injury the same - first of all, I don’t think that’s the right approach; we need to learn an awful lot more about the injury and the treatment. All we hear from the doctors right now is there is no real treatment - the only way you deal with it is to have the player sit out.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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