Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good Progress

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There has been a huge focus on concussions in the NHL this year.

In fact, you could argue that the concussion talk started before the regular season really got underway. On October 5th, 2011, the CBC aired the alarming news that Rick Martin was suffering from the beginning stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – a degenerative brain disease normally linked to those who have suffered multiple concussions. And Martin wasn’t a fighter. In fact, he only had one (recorded) concussion.

300 martin ap7802091343 Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good Progress

Rick Martin is taken off on a stretcher after his head struck the ice during a game against the New York Rangers in February 1978. Mickey Osterreicher/Buffalo Courier Express/Associated Press

That was alarming news to players, to fans, and to hockey parents.

When Brendan Shanahan took over as Head of the NHL’s Player Safety Department, head contact was priority number one under his watch. When he unveiled his new plan to use video explanations for each suspension, the general consensus was that, over time, what was a legal hit and what was not a legal hit would become clear.

WeberZetterberg Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good ProgressThe above image is now well known – it’s the infamous Shea Weber hit on Henrik Zetterberg from their first round playoff series. Well, it’s not really a hit. Weber just grabbed Zetterberg’s head from behind and tried to break the glass with his face.  You’d think that would earn Weber a suspension, but it didn’t. Rather, Shanahan and the NHL opted to fine Weber $2500, which is chicken scratch for a guy who is making 4.5 million bucks for this season.

Since then, as the playoffs have rolled along, no one knows what form of punishment – or if any punishment at all – will come from a questionable hit. Said Blackhawk’s captain Jonathan Toews on a more recent playoff incident wherein Raffi Torres’ put Toews’ teammate Marian Hossa onto a stretcher:

“I don’t what to expect anymore. I don’t think anyone does.”

Well, Torres received a 25 game suspension. It was a big time sentence, but one that came far too late in a NHL playoff season that had already become waaaaay out of control:

ConcussionCountPlayoffs Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good Progress

And this number was reached in the first round.

The NHL has got to be gravely concerned with the concussion/CTE problem. Surely they are incredibly busy behind the scenes, developing new tactics and brainstorming up ways to take this health risk out of the game before someone is killed on the ice. At least, I hope they are. Publicly, it sure doesn’t sound like the league is all that concerned. From NHL.com‘s “Number of Concussions among NHL Players is on Par with Last Season:”

The NHL says the number of concussions suffered by players this season is on par with the amount that occurred a year ago.

That’s viewed as a positive development by the league’s player safety department, particularly with all of the focus on those types of injuries and the belief teams and players are doing a better job of identifying them.

“What I can say is we’re continually looking at all ways to bring this number down,” Kris King, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey operations, said Monday. “The fact that it stabilized after a huge increase from two years ago is a positive I think.”

In case you’re curious, here’s a sample of those with head injuries last season:

  • Sidney Crosby – IR – Concussion
  • Brad Richards – IR – Concussion
  • Arron Asham – IR – Concussion
  • Marc Savard – IR – Concussion Syndrome
  • Eric Tangradi – IR – Concussion
  • Nick Johnson – IR – Concussion
  • Max Pacioretty – IR – Concussion/Spine
  • Peter Mueller – IR – Concussion
  • David Perron – IR – Concussion
  • Colton Orr – IR – Concussion
  • Ian Laperriere – IR – Concussion Syndrome
  • Francis Bouillon – IR – Concussion
  • Jonas Hiller – IR – Concussion?
  • Steve Kampfer – IR – Concussion
  • Daymond Langkow – IR – Neck
  • Kim Johnson – IR – Concussion
  • Kyle Cumiskey – IR – Neck
  • Theo Peckman – IR – Concussion
  • Marco Scandella – IR – Concussion
  • Matt Lombardi – IR – Concussion
  • Bryce Salvador – IR – Concussion
  • Derek Boogard – IR – Concussion
  • Kurt Sauer – IR – Head (Concussion?)
  • Paul Kariya – IR – Concussion Syndrome
  • Taylor Ellington – IR – Concussion
  • Michal Neuvirth – IR – Head? (heard it was an eye injury)
  • Michael Nylander – IR – Neck
  • Mike Green – Head

King thinks that the fact that head injury numbers have “stabilized” is “a positive thing.” I think not. The idea is to reduce head shots. To reduce concussions. From that same NHL.com article:

“I don’t feel that we are in the punishment business, I feel we are in the changing player behaviour business,” said Shanahan. “And you do that by getting someone’s attention.”

Shanny had the whole regular season to get the players’ attention. As noted above by Toews, what the Player Safety Department created this season was total confusion on the ice. That’s zero progress folks, along with a heady plague of perplexity. Not a healthy combination moving forward, is it?

Nope.

Soon after the Weber incident came Torres’ record 25 game suspension.

25 games. That’s a record. That’s progress, alright.

Of course, one could argue that progress, or change, simply takes a long time to happen. Change is hard, especially in consideration of a long held culture of behavior. Still, outside of the NHL, a change of perception of head shots, and especially fighting, is already underway.

Indeed, others are taking this problem very seriously, and are taking real action. The “Messier Project,” undertaken by NHL legend Mark Messier and Cascade Sports, has developed new technology that could provide that actual reduction in head injuries that the NHL can’t seem to attain on their own.

The M11 helmet features Cascade Sports’ revolutionary Seven Technology, a cutting-edge liner system utilizing a ground-breaking impact attenuation system to more effectively manage energy transfer from direct impact.

On impact, the Seven Technology liner system compresses to laterally displace energy and within seconds, it completely resets to ready for the next impact.  The total reset capability of the Seven Technology liner within the M11 helmet is proven to perform better than EPP (the foam liner in standard hockey helmets) on successive impacts.

…The mission of The Messier Project is to address the issue of head injuries and concussion, which have become an epidemic in hockey, through public awareness, product development, and equipment education.

The Messier Project aims to enlist the hockey community in an important quest to change priorities in the sport – from the professional level to youth hockey.

Mark Messier is leading The Messier Project in its efforts to engage the hockey community and its work to change priorities in the sport.  He believes that all stakeholders – players, coaches, General Managers, trainers, equipment mangers and parents – need to come together, evaluate the current environment and all the changes that have led to the current environment (from rule changes to player attitudes and equipment evolution) to find a multi-faceted solution to the issue of concussion in hockey.

Ex-Presidential candidate and consumer’s champion, Ralph Nader, has gotten involved as well. From the “League of Fans” post entitled “Response from CA on NHL Staged Fighting:

Dear Mr. Nader,

Thank you for your letter, article and statutory excerpts regarding the practice of staged acts of violence conducted by the National Hockey League.

While we agree that the level of violence in hockey games has reached repugnant levels, the issue of whether these games or the conduct of these “staged fights” come under the purview of the California State Athletic Commission is one that has yet to be reached. That issue would
fall under the purview of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Accordingly, I am forwarding your letter with attachments to DCA Legal Affairs, Anita Scuri, Supervising Senior Legal Counsel for the California State Athletic Commission. They will determine whether this matter is one that should be addressed by the Commission.

Sincerely,

Karen Chappelle
Supervising Deputy Attorney General
Licensing Section

Messier and Nader are working on some real progress here. Instead of sticking with the status quo, they are working on grassroots campaigns to change the equipment and the danger that remains in hockey’s culture. And they are not alone in the latter – many fans are working hard to change the culture as well. From the anti-fighting blog “It’s Not Part of the Game‘s post, “How Did We Get Here:”

  • 1960 to 1967:  Fights certainly existed in the NHL but were rare when compared to the next 2 decades to come.
  • 1967-68:  NHL expansion arrives and the league doubles in size to 12 teams.
  • 1968-69:  In the playoffs the Flyers were badly manhandled by a much rougher St. Louis team.  Ed Snider vows that will never happen again.
  • 1971-72:  Roster limits expanded to 17 players, plus goalies.
  • 1972-73:  Fred Shero becomes the head coach in Philadelphia.   His team will finish the season with the most PIM, 550 minutes more than any other team in the league.  The Broadstreet Bullies are born.
  •  1973-74:  Flyers win the Stanley Cup.  They once again lead in PIM, with 600 more than anyone else.  Only 4 teams have more than 1,000 PIM while the Flyers have 1,750.
  • 1974-75:  Flyers win their second Stanley Cup while leading the league in PIM by a wide margin, more than 690 minutes over the next closest team.  This was also the year that the players asked the NHL to ban fighting, but the league refused.  Only 3 teams have 1,000 or more PIM, Flyers have 1,969.
  • 1975-76:  The arms race begins as more teams start to look for enforcers to protect their teams from the Flyers.  The Flyers lose in the Stanley Cup final to Montreal but they lead the NHL in PIM again by a small margin.  Detroit is only 60 minutes behind them.
  • 1977-78:  There are now 7 teams in the league with 1,200 PIM or more, Flyers have 1.668.
  • 1980-81:  The league gets more violent and 6 teams have more than 1,800 PIM.
  • 1982-83:  Roster size set to 18 players, plus goalies.
  • 1986-87:  Every team in the league has more than 1,400 PIM, 11 are over 1,800.
  • 1988-89:  Poll of NHL players show that less than 50% want to see fighting banned.  The culture has taken hold.

…So don’t blame Bettman for pandering to pro-fighting crowds in the U.S. and using violence to sell the game.  The reason that pro hockey continues to tolerate players punching each other in the face has to do with a culture that was established in the early 70’s.  The NHL and NHLPA see nothing wrong with it because it has been a part of their entire hockey career and therefore they believe that it’s part of the game.

The Canadian Medical Association took head shots and concussions to task recently, when they published “Hockey Concussion: is it Child Abuse?” in their journal:

CMAJ1 Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good Progress

CMAJ22 Concussions: for the NHL, No Progress is Good Progress
Players, fans, and hockey moms and dads want a change – well, mostly. The Globe and Mail recently published a piece that talked about the Ontario Hockey League (a big time junior league for NHL prospects) banning fighting outright – at least at the tryout level. It also touched on the current policies of the QMJHL (Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League) and USA Hockey:

Sherry Bassin just wanted to see if his players could skate, shoot and play it smart. He wasn’t interested in how fast they could yank an opponent’s sweater over his head. So he decreed there would be no fighting among the teenagers trying out for his Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.

You would have thought Bassin had spit on the Memorial Cup. Some hockey types told the Otters’ managing partner and general manager he was sadly out of sync. Worse was the reaction from the players’ mothers and fathers.

“I had parents buzzing around saying, ‘You’re going to take away the effectiveness of my son,’” Bassin said, the disbelief still evident in his voice. “They’d say, ‘What do you mean? My kid’s a tough kid.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be fighting his teammates, I’ll tell you that.’”

Apparently not all parents are quite on board yet. The article continues:

…The QMJHL’s official position on fighting is not known. League commissioner Gilles Courteau declined an interview request. Russ Farwell, general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds, said the WHL tries to “use NHL rules, play an NHL style” and that taking fighting out of the game was something “we’d be very careful about before we did it.

“There’s so much less fighting in the game now,” he said. “The head injuries and concussions are not coming from fighting. [Fighting] is not an issue for me. If the NHL told us not to do it, we’d look at it. But it’s nowhere on our agenda.

…USA Hockey will vote in June on a plan to heavily penalize fighting in junior hockey at the Tier I, II and III levels beginning this fall and has asked Canadian hockey officials to do the same. The rule changes Branch wants the OHL’s 20 governors to adopt are aimed at players who habitually engage in fights. Also targeted are players who fight someone who throws a clean bodycheck, a practice that has crept into both junior hockey and the NHL over the last two decades.

From the same article comes the devil’s advocate from the players’ point of view:

Those who’ve had to stand on skates and throw punches want things to stay unchanged. Jevon Desautels spent four seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs and averaged 163 penalty minutes per year. He was drafted by the Washington Capitals but went on to play for the Calgary Dinos of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.

“As the game has gotten faster, the guys who can only fight don’t last,” Desautels said. “But [NHLers] Chris Neil and Milan Lucic are still really effective. They do a lot more than fight. That’s what the game has evolved to.”

And there is the heart of the matter – whether the game is evolving, or de-evolving, still seems to be a matter of opinion. Still, NHL players like Toews have had enough. Most parents have had it too. Fans are growing more concerned, and the debate has raged on all season.

Technically, the fact that parents up in Canada are pulling their kids out of the sport is progress. But like the Torres suspension, it’s just not the kind of progress the NHL wanted this season. And boy, the words “child abuse” are heavy – and while they are too strong to fit the argument, the fact that the CMA brought it up is truly alarming in itself.

Publicly, for the NHL, “par for last season” is good progress. Meanwhile, for the public, it’s not good enough, and real change is happening at a rapid pace.

“I don’t feel that we are in the punishment business, I feel we are in the changing player behaviour business,” said Shanahan. “And you do that by getting someone’s attention.”

Shanny, you’ve got everyone’s attention. You’re on top of the hockey world, sitting at the very apex of this problem. If this hard-wired hard knocks culture is ever going to change, it has to start at the highest level – right from your office. You need to show true leadership, which can only mean one thing for you and your Player Safety Department: “par” and “status quo” be damned.

You’re gonna’ have to find a way to show real progress.

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1 comments
busch1956
busch1956

Scott - I am anti-fighting primarily because I believe that it ruins the game and has no purpose.  My blog has covered the perceptions used to support fighting; momentum and policing the game, and used facts and studies to show that they are myths.  But the health issue is reason enough to take it out of hockey.

 

During the winter meetings the NHL reported that fighting was the cause of only 3% or 4% of all concussions, versus the higher number that resulted from hockey hits.  GMs agreed that no action was necessary because it was such a low number, meaning that it was OK for 3 or 4 players to be concussed and for countless others to be put at risk of long-term head trauma.  One stat that was not widely picked up was the risk factor of fighting versus a hockey hit.  The Sporting News reported on March 12 that if you combined all hockey hits and incidents of fighting - fights accounted for less than 1% of total hits.  That means you are 3 or 4 more times likely to be concussed by dropping the gloves versus taking a hit.  

 

That simple stat from the Sporting News article, and your many examples above, seem to indicate that the NHL is not studying all aspects of the problem and applying the best minds available to provide statistics, analysis and medical opinion.  Apparently they are studying new hockey equipment that is less rigid and will absorb more impact - that's great.  But if they are serious about player safety then they should be looking at every potential improvement available to them.  

http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/

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