The NHL’s latest headache won’t be coming from the University of Toronto, that’s for sure.

Official NHL Rule 48: Illegal Check to the Head, has been implemented to reduce incidents of concussions thanks to research from U of T.

Under the guidance of Professor Paul Comper, who is a neuropsychologist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and an NHL Players Association consultant, PhD student Michael Hutchison — a member of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health’s concussion research group — conducted a video analysis project that studied the kinds of hits that cause concussions in the NHL.

Is an average of 75 concussions per season an acceptable number?

According to Comper, “The League has felt rather bombarded by the issue for the last four or five years, so we proposed a project whereby we could give them objective information on how concussions happen.”

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Comper and Hutchison had tapes for 199 of the 260 reported concussions sustained in the NHL between October 2006 and January 2010.

“There’s no particular position that is at greater risk, and it’s pretty much an even distribution between open ice and along the perimeter of the ice,” said Hutchison. “The general pattern was the fact that, not surprisingly, hits to the head caused the majority of concussions in our samples and we found that there seemed to be more from the lateral side.”

The research also found that concussions occur quite often when the player doesn’t have the puck.

“There seems to be a time of vulnerability; whether they’ve just shot it, whether they’ve just passed it, or they’re just about to get it. That speaks to the fact, for educational purposes and awareness, that [the causes of concussions are] not necessarily vicious acts,” said Hutchison.

So how do you alter the behavior of the players without fundamentally wrecking the competitive nature and the physicality of hockey?

“The NHL certainly sets the tone for conduct for contact hockey,” Comper stated.

In March, Comper and Hutchison travelled to Boca Raton, Florida for the NHL’s annual general managers’ meeting to share their findings. Afterwards, the League drafted its first rule against illegal checks to the head, which is now in force.

“We gave our information to them and said: here are the general circumstances under which many of these injuries could happen, and therefore [this information] suggests that a percentage could likely be preventable,” said Comper.

“We were just one piece of the puzzle,” added Hutchison. “There were a number of different factors at the same time. There was more research coming out from the sports related concussion community, there was more public attention to the fact, and it happened that once we were done wrapping up our video analysis, there were major events in the league where people were seriously injured and it all just pointed in the same direction.”

On March 7, the night before the general managers’ meeting, Boston Bruins Marc Savard suffered a Grade 2 concussion during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins after taking a hit to the head from Matt Cooke.

It helped their case “in a tragic kind of sense,” said Comper. “It heightened awareness more than anything else.”

Comper and Hutchison were also invited to the prestigious Mayo Clinic’s ice hockey summit. Action on Concussion took place in Rochester, N.Y. on October 19–20. There, they presented their video analysis findings to physicians, peers, and the public.

“The consensus [of the clinic] was that all contact to the head should be eliminated in sports,” said Comper. “The approach that Mike and I have taken all along is baby steps.

“We are of the opinion [that] to say all contact to the head should be banned or eliminated from hockey is not realistic.”

Although the exact long-term effects of suffering concussions are still unknown, according to Comper, “There is an association between brain changes that are thought to be due to trauma and repetitive head blows.”

He believes that what we don’t know about head injuries might be equated to the harmful effects of smoking that were unknown to people before.

“Fifty years ago everybody smoked, including doctors, and it wasn’t such a big deal. Now there’s this realization that smoking causes cancer and we sit here and say ‘How could they smoke 30 or 40 years ago?’

“We don’t want to be there in 30 or 40 years with head injury, which is why there is all this proactive research going on right now.”

So what’s next for the duo?

“It would be nice to look after the fact and say, was there an effect to this? Was it beneficial? Has the mechanism maintained throughout this time? Has there been a reduction in the frequency?” said Hutchison. “You have to now monitor and evaluate the potential effect of this change.”

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