The topic of concussions in the NHL seems no more prevalent and pervasive than it has this season, and for Penguins fans of recent memory, has had little impact (pardon the pun) until it happened to Sidney Crosby. Just in the past two seasons, more Penguins players than I remember before have either been diagnosed with a concussion or with concussion-like symptoms.
In fact, according to ESPN Magazine’s Peter Keating, in his article “Reporting From…The National Academy of Neuropsychology’s Sports Concussion Symposium,” while the number of concussions from the 2005-06 season to the 2006-07 season did not change much, the number increased by 41% last season.
There are many reasons for this. On the media access side, hockey has seen a sizable surge in popularity with the advent of cable television broadcasts on multiple channels, additional special NHL hockey viewing packages, 24-7 access to news on the Internet via numerous social networks (like this blog). On the medical side, gone are the days of just having a team doctor to stitch ‘em up, rub ice on it, and send ‘em back out lickety split; though that still happens often enough. Medical advances in head trauma studies have reached professional sports of all kinds and are now seeping down into college and youth leagues as well. Pre-season tests are done to establish baselines and comparisons are made; in fact, the NHL was the leader in requiring such tests having begun with the 1997-98 season. However, it has been found that they are not a reliable end-all-be-all. In a recent article by Craig Custance from SportingNews.com, he cites the cases of Buffalo Sabres Jason Pominville and J.P. Dumont. One could not pass his post-concussion baseline test though all his symptoms had gone, and the other passed his test but still did not feel up to par. This is just one example.
After a player is injured, the process involves additional rounds of memory and motor skills tests and comparison of the baseline scores to current performance. Since just over a decade of data has been compiled, the findings have given the league and players much more information than they had previously, but in some ways, the findings raise more questions than answers. Face it, they are dealing with the highly complex organ called the brain that continues to be a mystery.
So what is the solution? How is the issue to be resolved if it can be at all? Locally, 105.9 The X’s sports talk guy, Mark Madden, threw out three suggestions that have been bandied about: no-touch icing, changing from 2-step checking to 1-step checking, and his personal favorite — eliminating fighting (Arron Asham’s opponent, Jay Beagle, is still out of commission).
No-touch Icing — Of the three, this is one that I think is feasible. Once the puck is launched from behind the red line to the end zone, the whistle is blown for an automatic icing. This would eliminate the great chase for the puck that often ends with a bone-jarring crunch. More often than not, the puck-launching team loses that race anyway because players from the defending team are closer to that end zone. It would eliminate that player from coming full speed into a defender who has to turn his back to retrieve the puck from his own end. Icing is really not one of the more exciting aspects of the game, so nothing would be lost in the WOW-Factor department.
Change from 2-Step to 1-Step Checking — Checking is an important part of the game of hockey. In terms of strategy, it forces an opponent off the puck so that the checking player can take possession and transition back theother way into their offesnsive zone. It also serves as a “policeman’s warning” to a player who has been pushing the envelope of appropriate behavior, usually against the other team’s star player(s). Checking cannot be done with the hands/stick up high, nor can a player leave his feet, but given the size and strength of today’s players, the 2-step check has an impact. Players will find a way around a rule like this to continue to make their presence felt on an offending player. To change to a 1-step check could, for instance, be met with even more strength training on the part of the players to make-up for the reduced impact by only allowing one step.
No Fighting — I saved this one for last because it is such a sore point from all areas of interest: fans, players, coaches, analysts, people who have no general interest in hockey but hate violence, you name it. Before anyone goes off half-cocked, they should read and absorb Ross Bernstein’s The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL, literally a primer on the history of and reasons for fighting in hockey. Bernstein objectively presents both sides of the argument, but I’d like to add my perspective as well. The Code is rooted in the idea that one plays by the prescribed rules and when one breaks those rules, there is a consequence that is exacted swiftly, which serves as a deterrent. It also insists that a transgressor must own up to his mistake and pay that price or be held in low esteem for failing to do so. A man must be a man much as current society tries to soften him.
This behavior was not unique to hockey, but part of the larger culture of society, including the gentleman’s code of dueling where the offended party demanded satisfaction. The onus of the punishment rested squarely on the shoulders of the player. It is no different than how a bully should be handled. You can talk a bully to death, threaten punishment by way of a 2-minute penalty (which means absolutely nothing if the offended team has a poor power play like the Penguins did last season), or simply run away from him by “keeping your head on a swivel” and hope he leaves you alone, but until he gets a good thumping, he’ll continue to bully, and someone is gonna get hurt needlessly–someone like a high-priced, high-skilled player who is the backbone of any team, or multiple players.
How many times has the earned reputation of an enforcer on a team given pause to an opposing player known for running the goalie, leveling knee-to-knee hits, or numerous boarding charges? When the “dirty player/instigator” steps on the ice, he has a decision to make as to what he is willing to risk to disrupt the other team. Time and again, I’ve seen those bad eggs deliberately steer clear of an Eric Goddard or a Derryk Engelland, particularly this season, and more or less minding themselves. How many times has an enforcer’s presence forced the opposing team’s coach to have to adjust lines to avoid lethal match-ups (often reducing his own agitator’s ice time) just as he has to determine who he will match his best line against? One can argue that meeting violence with violence can still end in a concussion. True, and those who engage in it know this. Just as a hockey player knows the risks of lacing up the skates and stepping onto the ice, the dirty players among them know the risks they run by implementing their style of play.
While there are still key enforcers in the game, more players are taking up the mantle to protect each other. For the Penguins, while Engelland and Asham are the current enforcers, transgressing opponents must also be wary of Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams, Tyler Kennedy, and James Neal. The uncertainty of whether any of these players could mete out punishment complicates the issue in the mind of the offending player, which in itself is a deterrent.
Is It the Equipment?
A final topic in hockey that has plenty of people vehemently arguing both sides but which merits some thought: protective equipment. Without protection, hits really hurt, no question, and certainly some protective equipment makes sense to minimize injury, including concussions. However, think of this: the more protective the equipment, the more “invincible” a player feels and the more aggressive the play becomes. In Bernstein’s book, he spends an entire chapter on facial protection alone, beginning with the implementation of helmets. The opposing argument was “wearing helmets might just be exchanging one set of problems for another…as the helmets went on, the sticks would invariably come up and a whole host of other injuries would take place from all the dirty play instead” (p 168). Could overprotection actually making things worse? As Bryan Berard from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002 stated regarding the idea of mandatory usage of visors, “We’re professional athletes, and we need to have that choice…We all know that as soon as we step on the ice, there’s a chance we can get hurt. It’s something we accept as professional athletes…It’s part of our job, our life” (Bernstein, p 170).
With the kind of money that backs pro athletes (i.e. Sid and Geno’s $8 million contracts), it is understandable that owners want to protect their investments, but at what price? By overly legislating the game as opposed to allowing self-policing, is the road to a worse hell paved with good intentions? In the case of the Penguins, while Sidney Crosby’s absence is a disappointment, it has not affected the ticket sales because the team is solid from first line to last and because the team has been blessed not just with one star, but with arguably 3 others who in their own ways while not Sid the Kid, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc Andre Fleury keep them competitive and viable. This is not to minimize the value nor the contributoin of Sid because he is the icon of contemporary hockey, but could, in fact, the positive unintended consequence/ lesson to be learned be that stronger teams are built around their star as opposed to having the star bear the load of its success due to the potential of severe, game-ending injury?