Hits to the head must stop now

From Crosby to juniors, North America has concussion crisis

28.01.2011
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Canada Hockey Place Vancouver British Columbia Canada

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby has been sidelined since suffering a concussion on 5th January. The NHL is on pace for nearly 80 concussions this year, and other leagues in North America risk losing players due to head hits, too. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

Due to a concussion, Sidney Crosby has now been out of action longer than the entire Olympic break last year. And there’s still no timetable for the return of arguably the world’s best player.

If there was ever an opportunity to reappraise the overall North American attitude toward the legitimacy of hits to the head, this is it.

It’s not only because of what’s happened to Crosby. Many other stars have missed time this season with the same ailment: Boston’s Marc Savard, L.A.’s Drew Doughty, St. Louis’s David Perron, and Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky, to name just a few.

Yet when brain trauma forces someone like the Pittsburgh captain – the star of a million TV ads, previously the favourite for this season’s Hart and Art Ross Trophies, and the scorer of Team Canada’s golden goal at the 2010 Olympics – to not even appear off-ice at the league’s annual All-Star Game, it gets attention. And not a minute too late.

The current situation is untenable. Hockey is a rough enough sport without permitting checks to the head and neck area. In light of what medical experts are telling us, why isn’t everything possible being done to minimize the risk of concussions? We can’t just wait until someone dies.

Concussions are not injuries you can “play through” on willpower. They are dangerously cumulative in their effect. This is not like Toronto’s Bobby Baun returning to play in the 1967 Stanley Cup final with a broken ankle, or Canada’s Steve Yzerman competing bravely despite an injured knee in the 2002 Olympic gold medal game.

Concussions, unfortunately, cannot be overcome by simply working hard or staying positive.

What has to be enormously frustrating to Crosby now is the realization that he – a player who is used to controlling his training, diet, rest, and on-ice performance to a remarkable degree – is now basically powerless to do anything except wait, listen to the doctors, and hope his headaches go away.

“It doesn’t get any easier with each day that goes by,” Crosby admitted to reporters. “It gets tougher and tougher to work your way back in it.”

How often do we hear players, coaches, and general managers talking about the need to “keep it simple”? They’re referring to on-ice tactics, of course. But if they love simplicity so much, why not get fully behind the following statement by IIHF President René Fasel?

“There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head.”

Pretty simple, isn’t it? When you use that as your guideline, you know from the outset that, for instance, Washington’s David Steckel and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman would face some kind of discipline for their hits on Crosby: be it a penalty, fine, or suspension. Regardless of whether their intentions were purely innocent or not.

Safety must come first. That’s why hits to the head – all of them – have to be banned.

According to a New York Times report, neuropsychologist Dr. Ruben Echemendia, head of the NHL/NHLPA concussion study group, says the NHL is on pace for nearly 80 concussions this year, including pre-season action.

It sometimes makes you question whether anything has been learned from history. Look at the two most highly touted Canadian prospects of the 1990s, big Eric Lindros and flashy Paul Kariya. In the normal course of events, both would likely be winding down their careers, still reasonably productive. Yet Lindros (37) hasn’t played since 2007, and Kariya (36) is sitting this entire season out. Two Olympic gold medalists on the shelf, and for what? We all know the answer.

The problem, though, is hardly exclusive to the NHL. Across North America, kids who may not ever play one minute in the NHL or the Olympics are going down with battered brains.

Think of 20-year-old centre Ted Stephens, a QMJHL champion with the Moncton Wildcats, who missed 15 weeks this season due to a concussion after getting hit from behind by two Rimouski Oceanic opponents. Or how about 16-year-old defenceman Tommy Stipancik, a prospect for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, who spent a year and a half battling nausea and headaches after originally getting concussed at the U-16 B.C. Cup?

The problem is likely even more widespread than most observers realize. A 2009-10 study, tracking Tier-4 junior teams in the Ontario Hockey Association, revealed that 17 players got concussions in 52 games observed by doctors. A whopping 69 per cent of those injuries came from head shots.

So who’s going to fix the concussion crisis? Frankly, it has to come from the top down. The organizational leaders in North American hockey have to say: “Enough is enough. We are going to do the right thing to protect the long-term health and career prospects of our players.” And in doing so, they will also, from a commercial standpoint, protect their most valuable assets.

Some allege that banning head shots completely will “take the hitting out of the game,” and that attendance will drop precipitously as a result. It’s nonsense. Beyond IIHF tournaments, the European pro leagues, the Ontario Hockey League, and the NCAA all offer proof that you can play an excellent, audience-friendly, and still-physical brand of hockey without tolerating the prime cause of concussions.

Change has to be mandated by the leaders. It won’t come from the players as a group.

The players, for the most part, are young and feel invincible. Few want to stand up and criticize their league’s health and safety standards. They’re thinking about the here and now, not about the possibility of being a 40-year-old man sitting in a silent, dark room with a headache, unable to enjoy the wealth he earned during his pro career.

Meanwhile, coaches and general managers too frequently view things through the prism of how things were back when they played. “I used to eat a thick, well-marbled prime rib steak before every game, drive to the arena in my 1977 Lincoln Continental, and then go out there and hit Dave Schultz in the head. Why can’t these kids today just suck it up?” The reality, though, is that times have changed. People are smarter. The health issues are much better-understood.

Today’s media, though, remains heavily invested in selling violence. Highlight reels with “Hits of the Week” and “Fights of the Night” are commonplace on North American sports TV. That mentality isn’t universal, of course, but the point is that media pressure alone won’t result in a full ban on head shots.

It has to come from above.

It’s like the smoking ban in restaurants and bars that’s now commonplace in North America and Western Europe. Without laws being passed, the business owners, left purely to their own devices, would never have implemented such a ban, fearing a drop in sales. But give it time, and people adapt.

If a universal ban on hits to the head is imposed in all North American leagues, the players will go along with it. So will the fans.

Only a tiny minority of hockey fans go to games with the NASCAR-like mentality of “oh, I hope there’s a bad accident today.” Most want to see good, aggressive hockey, but not bodies being carried off on stretchers.

If hits to the head and fighting – just another form of hitting the head – are banned, who’s to say how many new fans North American pro hockey could gain? People who love the excitement and finesse of international hockey, but are turned off by goonery. Think of the millions of viewers who tuned in to see the NHL’s brightest young North American stars battling for Olympic gold in Vancouver last February. There’s tremendous untapped potential.

Let’s hope for the sake of Sidney Crosby – and every other concussed hockey player – that change comes sooner rather than later.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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