Monday, February 28, 2011

There is a concussion epidemic in hockey

I’m not trying to sound like an alarmist but head injuries have become an epidemic in the NHL and in all levels of hockey – even when there is no body checking. Why this is happening is complicated but well documented. There is certainly more awareness of head injuries. Equipment changes have contributed to the problem. Better protective equipment can also be used when hitting another player which has lead to more recklessness. The game is faster now and players larger. I coached girls’ hockey for 10 years and some teenage girls today are the size of NHL players from the 1960s and 1970s. While players are faster and larger, their skulls are unchanged and therefore more vulnerable.

By December 1, there were as many head injuries (33) the NHL as there were all of last season. So obviously rule changes made last year have not helped. The NHL has more or less stopped reporting numbers but you can figure out the stats based on teams’ injury lists which are publicly available. Currently there are 23 players out with head injuries which is about 3% of players on NHL rosters. The total number of NHL players that have had a head injury this year is likely between 60 and 70. That means perhaps 10% of NHLers have been out of the lineup this season with a head injury. There is still the playoffs to come where hitting increases. Players who have already been out this season with a head injury will be at greater risk during this season’s playoffs.

If 10% of players had contracted measles this season, the NHL would be taking extraordinary measures to protect players from infection. But the response from the league has been muted to date despite the growing debate. The likes of Don Cherry and Mike Milbury are out of touch on this issue and not contributing anything useful to the debate. Furthermore, their insulting rants against advocates for more action to protect players are counter-productive.

Currently some very talented players are sitting in dark, quiet rooms waiting for their fog to lift from their brain, their careers and their social and family life. Who knows how much their careers will be shortened by their conditions. You only have to look at ex-players like Pat Lafontaine, Eric Lindros, Brett Lindros and Adam Deadmarsh. Players who recover and continue to play are often not the same player afterward. Just look at Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya. No study has been conducted to determine what the impact of repeated head injuries have on quality of life after a players career is over.

You only have to have experienced this yourself or by a family member to know this is a crisis not being addressed.

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