SADI MUKTADIR explores a conference on the relationship between hockey and concussions
Outcomes Following Concussions in Hockey (OuCH) held a conference on September 17 that explored the possible options in preventing concussions in hockey. A concussion is best defined as the immediate and usually temporary change of mental functioning due to serious trauma. Usually, the process involves the tearing of nerve fibres that affect the white matter in the brain, leading to subtle effects, such as dizziness.
Symptoms often include fogginess, headaches, and sluggishness. The subject of concussions has never been more charged than now. Beginning with injuries to players like Marc Savard, who suffered an elbow to the head, and culminating in the concussion of superstar Sidney Crosby, the league faces pressure to focus more attention on the problem of concussions. While stricter punishments, in the form of fines and suspensions, have been handed down, the sentiment at the conference seemed much different.According to data collected by Dr. Michael Cusimano, approximately 15,000 – 20,000 children will suffer concussions in the upcoming hockey season, and it was posited by the doctor that this was a conservative estimate. The main goal of the conference seemed to be the promotion of a different approach. Mainly, a change in attitude to violent hockey culture coupled with the education of players, coaches, and parents.Dr. Shree Bhalerao was an interesting addition to the conference. As a psychiatric doctor, he highlighted many previously underemphasized outcomes following a concussion. These included depression, sleep disorders and irrational fears, among other things. Players may become withdrawn and more susceptible to overmedication and substance abuse. The psychiatric effects of concussions and other brain injuries through hockey are receiving a lot of attention today, following the sad summer hockey experienced through the losses of well-loved players such as Wade Belack, Rick Rypien, and Derek Boogaard, all of whom did not shy away from a healthy tilt or two. Rob Zamuner, a former NHL player and NHLPA representative, however, seemed to suggest that the role of the enforcer in hockey could help to prevent and limit concussions, much like a police officer on duty, making sure that no illegal or nasty hits are doled out. Adam Proteau, a renowned writer from the Hockey News, countered this argument by highlighting the detrimental effects an enforcer may also have, namely, policing through brutal tactics and proactive violence. Matt Cooke, anyone?The doctors were mostly in favour changing hockey culture that encourages malicious and violent play and educating players’ support structures on the styles of play and hits that need modification. This was most recently reflected in the new requirement that every NHL team be shown a video and discuss dangerous headshots prior the start of the regular season. The new Rule 48 in the NHL, outlining new illegal headshots, and its enforcement around the league, has also set an example and upheld player safety. Case in point: the strict 10 game suspension just handed out to enforcer Jody Shelley for an illegal hit on our own Blue and White Darryl Boyce.The desired change in hockey culture was discussed at length, and interviews and testimonies from minor level hockey players and children’s hockey leagues around Ontario showed that kids from a young age are being encouraged to play a violent style of hockey. The medical panel asserted a needed change to this encouragement of violent and reckless play, starting with authority figures who can discourage malicious and retaliatory violence and headshots.
Educating players, coaches, and parents about concussions has come a long way. The devastating effect it can have on a player’s career is undeniable. Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, and many others can attest to that. With a greater focus on concussions as a brain injury, all involved at the NHL level and below are being forced to question the role of reckless retaliatory violence, the importance of the enforcer, and the vicious effects of the headshot. How to best prevent concussions is still a work in progress. Sidney Crosby awaits a consensus.
BRIAN O’NEILL’s perspective on hockey culture
The National Hockey League enters this season under a dark cloud. This summer the NHL saw three of its own tragically pass away: New York Ranger, Derek Boogaard; Winnipeg Jet, Rick Rypien; and former Leaf and Nashville Predator, Wade Belak. While there is no proven connection between these deaths and concussions, the three players were in a position that required them to check opponents aggressively, and it is not far-fetched that concussions or some sort of brain trauma played some part in their death.
But we enter this season with optimism. Progress has been made toward better education and awareness of the issue. A concussion is an “unseen injury”; it is not easily identified like an arm or leg injury. Players need to speak out about their symptoms in order to be properly diagnosed, and it appears that a growing number of players are doing so. However, it is still common for a player to play through an injury for the “best of the team.” Fortunately, the old adage of “shaking it off” is being replaced by precaution. A prime example of this is Sidney Crosby. The fact that an elite player of Crosby’s level is not returning — or being pushed into returning by management — until he is 100 per cent healthy is a positive sign. Crosby is one of the league’s most marketed players, and the NHL and its fans want him back as soon as possible. Yet, what are some consequences of Crosby returning too soon? The answer may be something hockey fans don’t want to consider. But no player, however elite, should be immune to scrutiny. As fans, we tend to gravitate towards sports as a form of escapism. For those few hours, we can put aside all else and invest ourselves in a game, a team, a common love. That is the beauty of sports. The game’s big stories should not involve life or death. Concussions threaten to damage the game. We love hockey for its physicality, but we also love it for its strength, skill, and the finesse of its players. It is impossible to fully eliminate the threat of concussions from the game, but as long as the league continues to act on recommendations based on research, players and fans can only benefit.We may go into the year with one of the league’s most dynamic players on the sidelines, but we do so willingly. Hopefully, awareness about concussions will influence the treatment of players, and love of the game, both on and off the ice.