By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
The news keeps coming. It just won't stop.
The latest is that Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger's career – and more importantly his long-term health – are in jeopardy because of a concussion that has left him "stumbling around, regularly forgetting very simple things and constantly feeling severe nausea," according to a harrowing column in The Hockey News.
It's sickening. It's alarming. Pronger is one of the toughest, baddest men in the NHL, someone who has never been stopped by scary injuries or multiple surgeries. He's one of the best defensemen in history – a leader, a champion – and now Thursday night's announcement that he will miss the rest of the regular season and the playoffs seems almost insignificant relative to the larger ramifications.
Listen to a former Flyers captain who retired because of concussions and still suffers years later – fatigue, headaches, head pressure, light-headedness when he elevates his heart rate to a certain level.
"Once the game is gone," Keith Primeau told me in a recent interview, "it doesn't mean that your concussion symptoms are gone. You still have a long life you need to live, and I'm living proof of that."
There continues to be ample proof that concussions are a crisis in hockey.
Some of the game's best players are missing because of concussions, including the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the runaway leader for the 2010-11 MVP award when he went down initially last January; the Flyers' Claude Giroux, the NHL's leading scorer; the Ottawa Senators' Milan Michalek, the league's leading goal-scorer; and the Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner, the reigning rookie of the year. There are so many that you could create an all-star team of the concussed.
But the problem stretches from the famous to the anonymous.
And you know what the really scary part is? This isn't a crisis because the NHL has ignored it and done nothing about it. It's a crisis despite the fact that the NHL has paid attention to it and taken several steps to address it – many of them unprecedented in sports. It's a crisis even though the actual number of concussions are down.
If you believe the league, of course.
The league has not helped its credibility the way its officials have commented on the issue. Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commish Bill Daly dismiss the "epidemic" label by pointing to statistics. Bettman and Daly shrug off the research into degenerative brain disease by saying it's in its early stages and the evidence is inconclusive. They come off as insensitive and even anti-science, even though they are correct.
The league looks hypocritical when it says it's serious about reducing concussions and yet doesn’t stiffen the penalties for fighting.
But the NHL has been proactive on the concussion issue going back to 1997. It was the first league to introduce baseline testing and return-to-play protocol. It has had a concussion working group consisting of medical and hockey experts.
The league introduced Rule 48 in March of 2010 to ban blindside hits to the head. It conducted a detailed study of concussions during the 2010-11 season – how many there really were, what really caused them – and everything was on the table at the general managers' meetings in March.
That included a total ban on hits to the head and slowing the game down – taking out the trapezoid to allow goaltenders to play the puck so defensemen don't get creamed, re-introducing the red line to whistle two-line passes so players can't fly through the neutral zone so fast. There was even discussion of allowing some obstruction back into the game.
Though the league stopped short of those things, it outlawed all hits that targeted the head, regardless of direction. It strengthened the boarding rule, because so many concussions occurred near the boards. It installed curved glass at termination points, to mitigate the kind of blow the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty suffered last season when he was pushed into a stanchion by the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara. It strengthened the return-to-play protocol, requiring players suspected of having a concussion to be taken to a quiet area and tested.
Commissioner Gary Bettman created a department of player safety and named former NHL player Brendan Shanahan the new discipline czar. He had Shanahan explain every suspension via video and meet players team by team – to better educate them on what is and is not acceptable. Shanahan is working with the NHL Players’ Association on softer shoulder and elbow pads.
And still … here we are today.
There is a short answer: We're pushing everything to the absolute limit in terms of training and competition – from the players' workouts and nutrition, to the fierce battles produced by the parity that comes from the salary cap. There has to be a breaking point, and the brain might be the most fragile part of the body.
The players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. They are trained to take hard, short shifts and to finish their checks. They are allowed to skate more freely because of the rules instituted after the 2004-05 lockout to open up the game. And yet the rink is the same size.
So the physics are more intense at the same time the physicians have more information about concussions. They are diagnosed better – and perhaps more frequently – than ever before, and players no longer play through symptoms they once did.
But this remains a tangled web. We can wail about head shots, but many of these concussions aren't caused by head shots. The cause of Pronger's concussion has not been pinpointed. Crosby's initial concussion was caused by what might have been an innocent collision with an opponent, and his relapse might have been caused in part by a collision with a teammate. Giroux took a teammate's knee to the back of his head. Michalek collided with a teammate.
It goes on an on. We have to look at each incident individually before we make conclusions about the whole, and the NHL needs to continue to study the problem in detail. Some ideas aren't practical, like making the rinks bigger when millions have been invested in new arenas built for the current size. But everything should be on the table again the next time the general managers meet in March – including putting brakes on the game, something nobody wants from an entertainment standpoint – and everyone needs to realize that rules and policies can go only so far.
The players aren't going to get smaller, weaker or slower as athletes. They are going to continue to play hard in the pursuit of Stanley Cups and multi-million-dollar contracts, and they are going to continue to take risks. We have to accept those risks on some level.
But the current level is still unacceptable. Pronger might be gone for good. Crosby is missing. So is Giroux, and Michalek, and Skinner, and so on. And those are just the names everybody knows. There are many, many more.
The game is changing. The culture is changing. The change must continue. The NHL has done a lot but not enough yet, and it must keep looking for more solutions – for the future of its players, and for the players of the future.
"The strongest message they could share is, they're not going to allow it to happen on their watch, therefore it's not going to happen at the ground floor, because the trickle down would be tremendous," said Primeau, who has been outspoken on the issue and helped launch the website stopconcussions.com.
"I think it's a baby steps process. The biggest thing I felt when we came out of the lockout and the rules changes at the time, they were drastic in measure as well. And so I don't want to see them drastically make changes again to go back to swing the pendulum the other way. They made an adjustment. See how it works. If they can push the envelope and continue to protect the players, that's a great thing."