Elite hockey players are fast and physical athletes therefore it is one of the sports with an inflated risk of concussion due to collisions and checks, despite players wearing helmets. Whilst the majority of concussions will resolve themselves in 7 – 10 days, some players experience post-concussion syndrome – most notably Sidney Crosby.
During the Winter Classic game in 2011, Crosby took a headshot from David Steckel then five days later, Victor Hedman ran him hard into the boards. After his concussion diagnosis, Crosby missed a staggering 68 games. However, only eight games into his comeback, Crosby collided with liney Chris Kunitz and was out for another 43 games. The player himself admits he questioned whether he would ever recover enough to play professionally again. Since that first bout of head injuries, he has gone on to win an Olympic gold in Sochi, a gold world championship medal, the world cup of hockey, the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe, and the Hart trophy, as well as various MVP awards. Yet, in 2016 Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion again following an incident in practice.
Coach Sullivan said at the time “Injuries are a part of our game. Part of the challenge for us is to try help Sid get healthy as quickly as possible”. It’s understandable that the Penguins wanted their captain and star player back quickly, but hurrying him back from a concussion could do more harm than good – particularly given his prior history. As it happens, Crosby missed six games but that was all.
Whilst Crosby is the most well known NHLer to suffer drastically from the effects of concussion, there are several others. Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder in his rookie year, hasn’t been able to hit the heights expected of him and injuries have likely played a role in this. During his second season, Skinner missed sixteen games following a concussion then suffered another head injury in the lockout-shortened season. A relatively productive season occurred in 2013-14 with Skinner scoring 33 goals, but again last season he suffered his third concussion in four years – and he’s only 24. It’s worrying.
Not every player is the face of the franchise, Sidney Crosby, who perhaps is allowed more time to recover to ensure he’s in pristine condition. For other players, there is an underlying need to get back in the team quickly, especially for a 3rd or 4th liner – professional sports are tough, and you’ve gotta fight for your position to show that you deserve to be on the team. As concussions are diagnosed by a symptom checklist, I question whether some players have omitted details because they’re eager to be back in the line up – putting themselves at further risk. Likewise, once you’ve received an injury, you don’t want it to happen again and in a physical game like hockey, you can end up playing scared – not making hits, not rushing to the net etc. It’s also interesting to note that video analyses of concussions during a five year period in the NHL showed that at the time of contact the player was often not in possession of the puck and often penalties were not called on the play. Checks to the head are too frequently being dismissed by officials or are being played off as accidental; one of Skinner’s concussions arose from his face hitting Matt Niskanen’s elbow – or so Niskanen said. Whilst many occurrences are clean hits, there are some players who play dirty and go for the head or take cheap shots which is something the NHL needs to tighten up on.
The most frequent cause of concussions were collisions with another player and nearly half occurred in the first period. This could be due to the higher energy/adrenaline levels in the beginning, easing into the game and adjusting spatially, or setting the tone for how physical the game will be.
The Jets’ Patrik Laine – who leads all rookies in scoring – suffered a concussion on the 7th. It was a hard hit, but not a dirty one. He was spotted watching the team train on Sunday (8th) in good spirits, but did not feel 100% to play. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery. That being said, at the beginning of this season, the NHL introduced “spotters” to games. Teams still have a responsibility to identify and report players who ought to be removed from play and evaluated for concussion, but additional support is now provided following an agreement between the NHL/NHLPA. Central league spotters will monitor games from the player safety room in New York where they can authorise a player’s removal from play if they exhibit certain visible signs. Teams who violate this ruling will receive punishments, likewise a player may not be re-admitted to the game until he is cleared to. More can be found here.
Whilst this should be seen as a good move, some players are already mad. McDavid was taken out the line up for a concussion check just as his team was on the verge of a 5-on-3 against the Wild. The captain said of the incident “obviously the spotter thought he knew how I was feeling”. Whilst McDavid’s frustration is understandable, over 100 ex-NHLers are suing the league due to the treatment of their concussions and the concealment of information regarding later issues, including dementia or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And it’s not just in the NHL, similar law suits have been brought against the NFL.
To sum up, concussions – whilst considered minor – can actually have prolonged and worrying implications that affects players’ careers and later life. The newly implemented spotters will be able to react and remove those players believed to have suffered a concussion, but do nothing to actually reduce a concussion occurring. As a parting note, hockey is a sport where players are expected to drop the gloves and fight; an enforcer can fight once or twice a month, so should fighting – which increases the risk of head injuries – be banned?
Can I just make a final confession, though? I don’t care what people remember about me as a hockey player, but please remember this one thing: I didn’t love to fight. The actual 30 seconds of fighting was fine. Your adrenaline takes over and the competition of battling at such a high level is actually enjoyable. The problem is all the anticipation of having to drop the gloves with another very skilled individual who can hurt you. The waiting is what drives you crazy. It’s not very easy on your psyche, especially once you have a family. – John Scott for The Players Tribune