NHL concerned over head count

As the number of concussions goes up, particularly with high-profile players, the league tries to be proactive with stiffer penalties and rules changes.

December 31, 2011|By Lisa Dillman
  • Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby crawls on the ice after being injured early this year. Concussion-like symptoms would leave him out for the majority of the season.
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby crawls on the ice after being… (Keith Srakocic / Associated…)

Keith Primeau has not put on his full hockey equipment since the day he retired from professional hockey, a career cut short by several concussions, not all of them documented.

To say he has good days would be stretching the definition.

"I can honestly say here that there isn't a day that goes by that I don't sense I've damaged my brain," said Primeau, who retired in 2005 at 34. "Whether I stand up and get a headache or I'm resting and I get a headache, I know exactly why I had to stop playing."

The former Philadelphia Flyers star has made it his post-career crusade to teach people about concussions. Primeau suffered at least four in his career, and if his own lingering symptoms weren't enough motivation, three of his four children have suffered documented concussions through their sporting activities.

Teaching moments, unfortunately, have been many in the NHL in 2011.

Concussion was the dominant word in the NHL last year and all but impossible to ignore, especially with the face of the league, Sidney Crosby, again indefinitely sidelined. Players famed for their ability to push pain aside have been sidelined in alarming numbers by head injuries this season. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, but the old "tape-an-aspirin–to-it-and-get-back-in-there" mentality has been replaced by a greater awareness of concussions and their potential damage.

Still, the question arises seemingly almost every morning after news of more head injuries: Is the NHL doing enough to protect its players?

On one front, the NHL has moved to impose stiffer penalties for head hits, as well requiring stricter rule enforcement on the ice. In the summer, the league modified language regarding two key rules — Rule 41 (boarding) and Rule 48 (illegal check to the head) — implementing changes to improve player safety.

Also, as part of a transition in leadership, the NHL launched a department of player safety and put future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan in charge this season. Shanahan not only issues written rulings in terms of supplementary discipline after illegal hits, but also makes a video presentation, showing the incident and the rationale for the decision.

The decisions are on the NHL's website almost immediately and available through Shanahan's Twitter feed. Additionally, Shanahan has been visible in terms of continuing player education, releasing video highlights of what constitutes a legal check and illegal actions.

"My impression of the league is that they're very proactive on addressing any issue that comes up with respect to player safety," Vancouver Canucks President and General Manager Mike Gillis said. "I know the meetings I've been at the last three years we spend an inordinate amount of time looking at checks, looking at how players are getting hit, trying to understand how these injuries are occurring."

Last season, protocols were put in place to keep athletes on the sideline at least a week after suffering a concussion. Under these guidelines, players deemed to have suffered a head injury must leave the game immediately and be observed in a "quiet room" by physicians attending the game. It isn't always a popular rule — coaches hate to lose key players in the midst of a game, and the players themselves are not always eager to go either. But it is one step.

Before joining the Canucks, Gillis was a well-known player agent, representing former players Pavel Bure and goalie Mike Richter, among others. Richter was forced to retire in 2003 because of concussions.

Now, on the management side, Gillis said that there was a great concern when one of his players suffered a concussion last season. Although the player said he felt fine within an hour after the injury, the Canucks followed the league-mandated protocol.

Other leagues are also addressing the issue. The NBA this season has implemented guidelines that will determine when players return from head injuries. If a player is diagnosed with a concussion, he must complete a series of steps to confirm that he's healthy enough for competition.

The NFL recently imposed more stringent concussion rules, but also included other modifications to protect quarterbacks. When there is suspicion of a concussion for any player, he must pass a battery of tests and be symptom-free before being allowed to return to the game. If not cleared, he must be examined and cleared by an independent doctor in order to return to practice.

Concussions have always been a hazard of hockey, but the number of high-profile players who have become victims has sparked intense debate over what the league can do.

The issue has deeper resonance considering Jan. 1 is the one-year anniversary of Crosby's head injury. Nothing has been quite the same for the Penguins star since that drizzly night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh when he incurred a head hit from the Washington Capitals' David Steckel in the Winter Classic.

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