Friday, March 4, 2011

Isn't it time for hockey to begin looking after its players?

The recent revelation that retired NHL players have suffered brain damage comes as no surprise to me. It is consistent in what has been observed in former NFL players and boxers. I love the sport of hockey. I enjoy playing the game, coaching children and just being a fan. To be honest the growing awareness that players are sacrificing their health, their family and social relations and their future quality of life bothers me.

Brain injuries aren’t like physical injuries. A retired athlete with a bad knee or hip can be helped. Bobby Orr has had knee replacement surgery and leads a relatively normal life. He works, plays golf and interacts with his family. You can’t fix or replace a damaged brain. It can create a barrier to employment, enjoying the company of others, and basic recreational activities like reading, watching tv or playing cards. Overtime your disability will worsen and your life expectancy is shortened. Do you think anyone willing signs up for this type of future?

There are a number of reasons why there is an epidemic of concussions in hockey. There is marked increase in awareness of the concussions in sports. No one talks about having their bell rung anymore. Yet in a recent game, Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski took two hard hits to the head from 6’9” Zdeno Chara without missing a shift. The rationale was that the team was following the league concussion protocol and he showed no signs of a concussion. Shouldn’t the team have considered the players health and safety over all other considerations and pulled him from the game as a precaution? It’s not like he underwent a thorough examination by a physician. A trainer took a look at him on the bench.

We need to recognize how much the game has changed. Players are bigger, weigh more, and wear protection equipment and pads that can also hurt opponents. What hasn’t changed is the anatomy of the skull and brain. A blow to the head causes your brain hit the inside of your skull. A good analogy is a big hunk of jello flopping around inside a bucket. What you get is a big mess. Better helmets aren’t the answer either. Helmets won’t prevent you brain from banging against the inside of your skull.

There is only one way to prevent brain injuries in hockey. Change the way the game is played. You can’t entirely eliminate these types of injuries because some are the result of unintended collisions. I’ve coached players who suffered concussions from incidents like running into a teammate during the warm up, losing a skate edge and falling head first into the boards, and toppling out of the rink when a gate was accidentally left open. But there are two important changes that can drastically reduce brain injuries:

  1. Ban fighting
  2. Ban any hit to the head

Opponents will tell you this will ruin the game. They will refer to it as pussification. They will accuse the league of giving into pinkos, commies and…OMG…the international lobby. Sounds like a conspiracy. There is no question that the game will change considerably. So will the makeup of the league. In fact big players might become more of a liability because they are more likely to hit someone in the head. The two hits that Grabovski took from Chara were not aimed at his head but the Bruins defenseman is about a foot taller than the Leaf forward. Someone players will not be able to adapt. Smaller players will become more effective. Fighters who cannot contribute to a team without dropping their gloves will disappear. The game will likely become less physical but other skills will likely dominate. But who says the games won’t be as entertaining. Maybe they will be more entertaining.

If you have compared today’s game with the NHL of the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s you will notice that hockey has been constantly evolving. These changes would just contribute to that ongoing evolution. We all will adjust.

Even if the game is worse off, it is still unconscionable to allow players to risk their health for the entertainment of others. There needs to be a balance between the risks for players and the needs of fans. Remember what goes on at the NHL level filters down to youth hockey. What are the long term impacts of a concussion on a child who is still developing physically, emotionally and intellectually?

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