Solutions to NHL's concussion epidemic
There are few NHLers tougher than Ian Laperriere. In fact, The Hockey News named the Flyers right winger the league’s toughest player last season. He blocked a slapshot with his face. Repeat: He blocked a slapshot with his face.
However, not even Laperriere is tough enough to survive a run-in with hockey’s nastiest bastard. Sidelined since last spring with post-concussion symptoms, the 37-year-old, 16-year NHL veteran is among the growing number of head-injury victims in an unenviable spotlight as the issue of concussions sets down upon the NHL like a zombie plague, threatening to devour the league’s talent base.
This season, concussions have sidelined the NHL’s premier player in Sidney Crosby, as well as Marc Savard, Matthew Lombardi, Marian Gaborik, David Perron and Peter Mueller; all upper-tier NHLers who are desperately needed by their teams as they battle to make the playoffs and put glutes in seats. Add their names to an ever-growing list of players severely affected by head injuries — including Pat LaFontaine, Jeff Beukeboom, Eric and Brett Lindros, Adam Deadmarsh, Nick Kypreos, Keith Primeau and Paul Kariya — and it is clear the sport still hasn’t adequately addressed its most pressing issue.
Implemented this season, the NHL’s Rule 48 banning blindside hits has had a positive effect on lowering the number of brutal collisions that lead to brain trauma. But there’s a sense among some in the hockey industry that attitudes haven’t changed enough in the real corridors of power, that the hockey establishment isn’t moving with sufficient speed to pin down the root causes of concussions and find solutions to keep players healthy during and after their time on the ice.
“At the All-Star Game this year in Carolina,” said player agent Allan Walsh, “an NHL executive said to me, ‘Everybody’s whining because (Crosby) is out, but nobody really cares about this issue. All we’ll do is find another player to hype and everybody will forget about Sid.’ I wonder how much of that attitude permeates through NHL headquarters.”
Added Laperriere, who has resumed off-ice workouts, but still has severe vision problems when dealing with indoor lighting: “What drives me nuts is everybody is talking about it, but nobody is doing anything about it.”
Laperriere is right to say there’s been no action to deal with concussions. But there are no shortage of solutions being proposed. The Hockey News canvassed people from inside and outside the NHL to outline those ideas. We’re not necessarily endorsing them as much as we are presenting them. Below are the first three points, with the final four appearing Saturday on THN.com:
1. CHANGE THE CULTURE
Before he officially joined the NHL Players’ Association in February as special assistant to new executive director Don Fehr, Mathieu Schneider enjoyed a 21-year pro career relatively free of serious head injuries. But he has friends who weren’t able to shower two years after concussions forced them out of the NHL.
As such, Schneider talks about head injuries using the hushed tones of someone who understands the gravity of the issue.
“It’s certainly (the NHLPA’s) top priority right now,” Schneider said. “Players have to feel they can play and perform at 100 percent; play and be safe out there. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done over a short period of time, but we want to make the game as safe as possible as soon as possible.”
While Schneider believes a multi-pronged approach is the best way to tackle the problem, he said educating NHLers and changing the culture that surrounds concussions — specifically, the natural inclination among players to play through a head injury the same way they’d play through a sprained knee or elbow — is one of the biggest keys.
To that end, Schneider and the players’ union are in the early stages of putting together what he calls a mini-documentary to be shown to players in coming years. The film will chronicle the post-playing-career lives of former NHLers who have dealt with and continue to cope with the consequences of head injuries.
“There’s a big education process that needs to happen,” Schneider said. “Players have to realize a concussion is not a knee injury and you can’t just shake it off and keep playing through blurriness and dizziness. There’s no replacing a brain. The more guys know, the more they’re aware and the better decisions they can make.”
2. GAMEPLAY AND ARENA MODIFICATIONS
As the concussion issue has taken center stage in many NHL discussions, a number of prominent hockey figures have made their own suggestions in terms of structural changes to the ice surface or arena itself.
Hall-of-Fame coach Scotty Bowman proposed bringing back the center ice red line (and making the two-line pass illegal again) to slow the increased speed of players through the neutral zone that many point to as a sizeable factor in vicious collisions. Eric Lindros suggested that creating a bigger playing surface (by removing the first row of seats in all arenas) would give players more space to breathe on the ice and more options to avoid being concussed by an opponent.
Former bench boss and current TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire isn’t particularly fond of either of those ideas, believing they’d sap pizzazz and push the game back to defensive hockey fans were subjected to during the NHL’s Dead Puck Era. Instead, McGuire thinks the six rinks that still have unforgiving, seamless glass — rather than the flexible boards systems that better allow players to absorb hits — is responsible for far too many preventable injuries.
“The number of concussions caused by seamless glass is a major issue,” McGuire said. “Seamless glass has to go. There are six buildings left in the league that have it and they should all be replaced. There should be a regulated board system and glass system for all teams. It costs $250,000 to (make the change), but what’s the cost of losing a player? Losing a career?”
3. NEW RULES AND STIFFER PENALTIES
Walsh and Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, have emerged as two of the more outspoken player representatives on the concussion issue; they share the conviction the time has come to extend Rule 48 into a complete ban on all hits to the head.
Opponents of a head shot ban argue such a decree would remove physicality from the game and thus poison its essence. That’s a matter for debate. The OHL has had a head shot penalty for a couple years and, while some say it has eroded an element of crash and bang, commissioner David Branch disagrees.
“Some people have made the negative comment that our rule takes away from the physicality of the game,” said Branch, also the president of the Canadian Hockey League. “We’ve not seen that. In our view, our game still has that physical element.”
In addition to targeting head shots, Branch has leveled heavy suspensions on egregious episodes; former Erie Otters left winger Michael Liambas found that out first-hand in November of 2009 when Branch suspended him for the remainder of the 2009-10 season for taking a run at Kitchener Rangers defenseman Ben Fanelli and fracturing the 16-year-old’s skull.
Laperriere is frustrated by the NHL’s reluctance to follow Branch’s lead and throw the book at notorious predators.
“I really do think the league is missing the boat on clearly bad hits that they should (punish) players with a huge amount of games,” Laperriere said, alluding to Penguins super-pest Matt Cooke’s repeated crossings into dirty-play territory. “With hits that are obvious, and with the repeat offender, that’s the time to make a stand, put your foot down, give him 20 games, see who the next (player) is going to do that. There won’t be one.”
The final four points will appear Saturday.
This article originally appeared in the March 21 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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