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Quick head check shows shortfalls of NHL's concussion protocol

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick took a hit to the head against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night – and the ham-handed way in which it was addressed indicates the NHL has a long, long way to go in order to start getting its concussion protocol right.

It has long been the opinion of this corner that the NHL gives its teams, GMs, coaches and players far too much power and decision-making latitude when it comes to matters that should be handled by the league. You see it when the NHL is the only major professional sports league that allows teams to determine access to players during major events such as the Stanley Cup final. You see it in matters involving rules, the way the game is played and, after the Jonathan Quick incident in Toronto on Monday night, how the league applies its concussion protocol.

Nothing about the manner in which that incident was handled would give any observer confidence that the league is taking this matter seriously. From the delay between the incident and when it was addressed to the ham-handed way in which Quick was pulled for one shift indicates the league has a long, long way to go in order to start getting this right.

Here’s what we know:

With 2:55 remaining in the first period of Monday night’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings, Quick went down with what appeared to be an inadvertent forearm shiver from his own defenseman Derek Forbort, who was jostling in front of the Kings net with Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman. Quick immediately grabbed his head. At that point, the concussion spotter in the press box at the Air Canada Centre called the league’s war room in New York and alerted the league to the possibility of a concussion. Job done.

There were three more stoppages in play and 1:44 in playing time had elapsed before Quick was summoned off the ice with 1:11 remaining in the period. And this is where things get really murky. Quick went down the tunnel leading to the quiet room, then returned and took his spot back in the Kings’ crease. He was then pulled off the ice again and replaced by backup Darcy Kuemper, who played the next 36 seconds before Quick went back into the net to play the final 35 seconds of the period.

At no time was Quick ever assessed for a concussion with any real vigor. He was asked a couple of questions by the Kings trainer and was deemed to be fit to return to play. That was it.

And that is where all of this is breaking down. L.A. coach John Stevens said after the game that the Kings received word that Quick was to come out of the game, then were told that upon further review the league had determined Quick did not need to go through concussion protocol. Referees Steve Kozari and Ghislain Hebert, meanwhile, treated Quick as an injured player and insisted he sit until at least the next stoppage in play.

How on earth could this happen? Good question. As it was explained to me by someone with the league, the concussion protocol allows for the NHL to make this determination. The league has charted the kinds of hits that have the greatest probability to lead to concussions and, based on a combination of the impact and the player’s reaction to it, leaves room for the league to leave it up to the discretion of the team’s training staff. And that play on Quick was apparently one of those cases. The league was under the impression that Quick took a stick to the head, which apparently causes only one percent of concussions. How anyone could actually see that and make that determination based on the replays is a mystery. (It should be noted that the NHL hasn't officially commented on the matter and reportedly wasn't planning to.)

The league is playing a very dangerous game when it comes to head injuries. It has charted all the hits that lead to concussions and has basically deemed that the ones that lead to the lowest percentage of concussions are the ones where the trainers and players will have the discretion to make the determination about the fitness to play.

Which, of course, renders the entire concussion protocol something of a joke. As long as the league gives teams, trainers and players any discretion at all in this matter, chances are the player is going to be back in the game as soon as possible. Because, and we’ve said this time and again, the player should be the last person who should be relied upon to determine fitness to play.

In fairness, the league is in a difficult spot, particularly when it comes to taking goalies out of games. It is under enormous pressure from players and coaches to keep them in the game, which is why the league seems willing to give teams the discretion when it comes to blows it deems to be low-risk for injury.

But there should be no discretion here. If a player is identified by the concussion spotter as being at risk for a head injury, he should be sent to the quiet room for a full assessment. Full stop. And if that happens to your starting goalie and the backup comes in and gives up three goals (after a warm-up) and you lose the game, well, that’s unfortunate. That’s why the league has concussion spotters in the first place. And remember, much of this happened because of the Dennis Wideman incident – he refused to be pulled from a game by his trainer, then used his concussion as his defense for wiping out a linesman a short time later.

“You have to ask the league,” said Quick when asked about the incident after the game. “I don’t know what they were doing. I don’t know what the (expletive) happened, to tell you the truth.”

Right about now, a lot of people are thinking exactly the same thing.


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