Feb 15, 2012, 04:04AM

Tell Him He's Wayne Gretzky

Concussions are emerging as a serious issue in the NHL, and the league needs to do something about it.

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In his lifetime, Ken Dryden’s been a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens, a professor at the University of Toronto, the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Member of the Parliament of Canada, and a credible candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. He’s also the author of several books, including perhaps the most famous and respected book on hockey and the National Hockey League never written, 1983’s The Game. When he talks, people tend to pay attention (even if they do make fun of the breadth his vocabulary afterward).

Recently, he’s turned his attention to writing about concussions in the NHL, authoring two separate articles in recent months. A piece in October for The Globe & Mail used an examination of the situation around concussed superstar Sidney Crosby to reflect on an increase in the levels of diagnosed concussions in the NHL, and what could be done about it. “The presumption needs to be that every hit to the head is an attempt to injure,” said Dryden, “with the onus on the player doing the hitting, through his actions and in the eyes of the referee, to defeat that presumption.” 

Then, a December article on ESPN’s Grantland website reflected on Dryden’s personal experience with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, leading to a personal appeal to Bettman to take aggressive action to try to cut down on concussions in the game. As Dryden explains, changes in tactics, playing style, and player training have made hockey a more dangerous sport: “[In the past], the game moved much more slowly with players playing coasting, two-minute shifts with few collisions. In hockey now, the game moves in full-abandon, 35-second shifts with bigger players, the collisions are never-ending and shuddering. And hockey fighters, once normal-sized and untrained, inflicted little damage. Today, far bigger and having been trained in combat much of their lives, they can cave a face with one punch and have their brains rattled in return.”

Dryden concludes his Grantland article by urging Bettman to look more closely at the science on concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE’s a degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It’s been found in boxers, football players — and, recently, in hockey players. Of the four players whose brains have shown symptoms of CTE, three have been “enforcers,” players who frequently fought during games, trading punches to the skull. But it was also found in former Buffalo Sabres’ scorer Rick Martin, who did not regularly fight. Still, in early December, Bettman declared it “premature” to link CTE, which causes symptoms such as memory loss and depression, with hockey.

The difficulty of talking about concussions in hockey is that the conversation sprawls into other ongoing conversations about the game: about fighting, about obstruction and how far players should be allowed to interfere with other players, about the credibility of the NHL administration and the streak of conservatism in hockey. The game’s a key part of the Canadian identity, and for many, of a certain specifically Canadian sense of masculinity. The battles in the game, the toughness and grit, can’t be questioned without counter-charges being made, explicitly or implicitly, that the questioners want to sissify the sport.

It is inarguably true that (men’s) hockey is a contact sport, and there will necessarily be some collateral damage that accompanies the physicality of the game. Stars will always be injured, and some superstars will have their careers cut short. Arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport, Bobby Orr, had to retire early due to a series of knee injuries. 

Still, the new science regarding brain trauma seems to be of a different order, suggesting players may be at risk in a way no one realized. At the same time, the ability to diagnose concussions accurately has increased in recent years, along with an awareness of the effects of the symptoms. Hockey fans are seeing more and more players sidelined with concussions for longer and longer. What’s happened to Sidney Crosby is above and beyond what one might expect.

Crosby was tabbed as the next great Canadian superstar even before entering the league at the age of 18. In the six-and-a-half years since then, he’s won the Stanley Cup, won the Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, won the Hart Trophy and Lester Pearson Trophy as the league’s most valuable player (the first as chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, and the second as chosen by the NHL Players’ Association), and scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game of the Winter Olympics. It’s difficult to overstate his importance to the League, or how heavily he’s been promoted. Following a minor injury early in his career, the Onion posted the headline: “NHL Out Three To Five Weeks With Sprained Right Poster Boy.”

It’s a bit of a problem for the league, then, that Crosby’s only played eight games in the last calendar year.

In the 2011 Winter Classic, an outdoor game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on New Year’s Day, Crosby was hit in the head by the Washington Capitals’ David Steckel (Steckel claimed the hit was accidental; replays are inconclusive). In his next game, on January 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Crosby took what appeared to be a more minor hit from Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. After that hit, Crosby began suffering concussion symptoms. He didn’t play again that season, or through the playoffs. His recovery over the summer was slow; he missed the first twenty games of this season. Then, after finally playing eight games in which he posted twelve points, his symptoms returned. 

The specific cause for the symptoms’ recurrence may have been a minor hit by the Boston Bruins’ David Krejci on December 5, but whatever the exact reason, Crosby’s been sidelined again. It appears now that he’s suffering from a soft-tissue injury in his neck that mimics the effect of a concussion. That’s perhaps a relief, if only because it seemed that Crosby’s career might be finished at the age of 24.

Whether he has a concussion or not, the injury to Crosby came from a hit to the head, and he’s not alone in feeling long-term symptoms. The Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard hasn’t played for over a year, and his future is uncertain. The Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Pronger has been shut down for the year due to symptoms following a high stick on November 19. By late January, roughly the midpoint of the season, 72 players had missed games due to concussions. One estimate suggested the number by the end of the season might reach 110, roughly 15% of the players in the NHL.

At least people are noticing the toll concussions are taking. As a contrast, it’s worth pointing out a previous ‘greatest player of his generation’ who had to struggle with the injury - Eric Lindros, who entered the NHL to great hype in 1992, had his career shortened by a series of concussions — eight separate diagnosed concussions over the course of his time in the league. Lindros played during before the current awareness of concussions, in what is now referred to as “the dead puck era,” when scoring was down and interference more widely allowed. Lindros was a big man, six foot five and over two hundred thirty pounds during his career, and seemingly well suited for the type of hockey then preferred. But heavy hits over the years, most notably an elbow from New Jersey Devils’ defenseman Scott Stevens, first diminished his effectiveness and eventually forced him into retirement. 

The Stevens hit in particular is still replayed as an example, depending on the commentator, as either the type of good defensive play we need more of in the league, or else the type of vicious hit to the head that ought to be banned. In his Globe & Mail piece, Dryden specifically called the Stevens hit an attempt to injure. It may be relevant that Lindros was not well-liked by fans, dating back to before he was drafted, when he let it be known that if he was drafted by the Québec Nordiques he would refuse to play for the team. Québec did finish in a position to draft him, and traded his rights to Philadelphia for a raft of players who eventually played key roles in bringing the franchise the Stanley Cup — after it had relocated to Colorado. Lindros ultimately had a contentious relationship with Philadelphia management, including accusations that the team’s medical staff failed to diagnose a concussion he suffered in the year 2000.

This past summer, with less fanfare, Paul Kariya also retired after a series of concussions. Kariya was considered one of the greatest players in the game at times in the 1990s, but in recent years had been clearly slowed by concussions. When he retired, Kariya was quoted calling for sterner punishments for hits to the head: “If you start at 10-game suspensions and go to 20,” he observed, “that sends a message to the players. But if you start fining the owners and suspending the coach, then it’s out of the game.”

In fact, the rise of concussions in the NHL — whether it comes through more accurate diagnoses or through a change in playing style and conditions — threatens to bring real financial consequences. A report recently circulated speculating that insurance companies would be re-evaluating the terms on which they offer policies to NHL teams covering their players’ salary. That could be significant; Crosby’s $9-million-per-year contract (all NHL contracts are in US dollars) is paid for by insurance, due to the length of his injury. If teams have to face shouldering that sort of burden, smaller-market teams may find themselves financially pinched. NHL contracts are guaranteed; however much time he spends injured, the player will get his money. With the league’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring this September, there’s speculation the NHL will be pushing to change that, and this issue of insurance may foreshadow one of the more contentious conflicts to come.

The league has to be looking at the NFL, where emerging information about concussions has led to a series of lawsuits. Could the NHL face similar potential liability? Giving Bettman’s legal background, one has to assume the league’s prepared for court challenges.

Still, there’s no doubt there’s a culture in the league that’s minimized the danger of concussions in the past. One famous anecdote from 1993: after centre Shaun Van Allen of the Edmonton Oilers took a hard hit, he returned to his team’s bench. The team’s trainer told coach Ted Green that Van Allen couldn’t remember who he was. “Good,” said Green. “Tell him he’s Wayne Gretzky.” Players were expected to play through concussions, just like any other injury that wasn’t immediately and obviously crippling. The league takes head injuries more seriously now, but some players still try to hide concussions to avoid appearing injury-prone.

There are, then, two issues facing the NHL: given the increase in concussions, can the game be changed so as to cut down the number of injuries? And if it can, is the will there to enact those changes?

The league in fact added new rules this season to try to lower the number of dangerous hits that could lead to concussions. It doesn’t seem to have worked. There probably are other changes that can be made that wouldn’t significantly affect the playing style of the sport. For example, many people have argued that parts of the players’ equipment, especially shoulder pads and elbow pads, are too large and too unyielding; various companies are trying to create alternatives that will offer the same level of protection without the risk of injuring an opponent.

Dryden’s skeptical that such “tweaks” can successfully cut down on concussions. But if laws are put in place banning all contact with the head, for example, how does that affect the ability of players to deliver a legal hit? If a player knows he’s about to be hit, will he risk putting himself in a dangerous position in order to force the hitter to hold up? Dryden’s answer: “If an opponent purposely puts his head in a position to draw contact in order to cause a penalty to be called, just as with ‘diving’ now, it is that player as ‘instigator’ who will receive the penalty.”

Still, to put in place rules to forbid a certain kind of hit means that players will have to pass up other hits, borderline cases. Which probably means less hitting overall. Dryden recognizes that these sort of changes, amounting to a change in the culture of the game, will be resisted. There’s a knee-jerk fear in certain quarters that any diminishment of the physical aspect of the game will lessen both the appeal and the basic essence of the sport. Many of the people who feel this way are former players and coaches, people who legitimately feel that they have an understanding of the sport that outsiders don’t. Whether they have an understanding of the appeal of the sport to spectators is open to question.

At any rate, even the hockey conservatives recognize that something has to be done about concussions. The counterpart to Dryden’s proposal has been to re-legitimize interference in certain circumstances. Interference, physical contact away from the puck, is strictly forbidden according to the rulebook, but tolerated in a number of cases. Following a lockout of the players in 2004-5 that cost the league a season of play, the NHL tried to appeal to fans by having referees call interference more tightly, while at the same time making changes to the icing rules, all with the aim of increasing the speed of the game. It succeeded. But if the game’s too fast, the conservatives argue, then maybe bringing interference back would be the answer to the concussion problem.

It’s possible. Speaking purely as a fan, though, I have my doubts about this strategy. I suspect that, having seen what the game looks like when played at the fastest tempo possible, returning to a slower style of play will seem like a step down. The genie is out of the bottle.

Canadians love to debate the direction of the NHL, and what’s wrong with it. We follow the sport, nevertheless. I’m a fan, like many of my countrymen and -women. I’m writing this article on Hockey Day in Canada — a day arranged by the NHL for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in which every team in Canada plays, mostly against each other. In another window of my computer, the Edmonton Oilers beat the Ottawa Senators. Then the Montreal Canadiens thrashed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Later, the Calgary Flames edge the Vancouver Canucks. Listening to the rhythm of the game, the crowd noise, the ebb and flow of events is like listening to a favorite song. I don’t know what the best way is to minimize concussions; I only know that it matters to me, and that I want to hear that song played as well as it can be, by the best players in the world.


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