The NHL remains involved in a lawsuit with a group of former players who contend that head injuries suffered during their careers led to serious brain diseases. Litigation potentially is around the corner and in the meantime, Congress has asked the league to do more to diagnose and document concussions.
This season, the NHL implemented a centralized concussion-spotting staff to monitor games, via television, in New York. It is a group of certified athletic trainers who “have clinical experience working in elite level hockey and have received training on the visible signs of concussion in the protocol,” according to the league. Staffers are watching every game, and although they are in communication with additional spotters inside the arenas they have the authority to remove players.
The reaction to the policy has been overwhelmingly positive, from coaches to players suggesting the more eyes that are monitoring, the better — particularly since they are independent observers. But those same people in favor of the new measure have some concerns about how effective the central spotters can be, trying to pinpoint a possible concussion from a TV, and what impact they will have on games, sending players to the locker room on the smallest suspicion of symptoms.
“The thing that’s good is that they’re neutral people, so it’s not like the trainer can say, ‘It’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, we can’t take you out right now,’ ” said Blues forward David Perron, who missed 97 consecutive games in the 2010-11 season because of a concussion. “The protocol seems like it’s getting better, or at least they’re working at it, so it’s good. But it all depends on the job (the spotters) do. The thing that’s crazy is everyone is different, every case is different. Someone might get hit hard and nothing happens, or it could be a little thing and it causes symptoms. It’s going to be tough for those (spotters).”
It already has proved to be both an effective and elusive approach.
A week ago in Edmonton, Oilers goaltender Jonas Gustavsson replaced starter Cam Talbot in the second period of a game against Buffalo. But in the period, with the Sabres on a two-on-one rush, Edmonton defenseman Adam Larsson inadvertently backed into Gustavsson, jolting the goalie’s head. He was examined on the ice by a trainer and remained in the game. About five minutes later, however, spotters in New York and in the building yanked him from the game.
Talbot, who had allowed four goals on 15 shots and thought his night was done, was thrust back into action.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation since I’d already been pulled, but player safety comes first,” Talbot said. “I think it’s smart when a player lays on the ice that they take a second look because obviously he was fairly banged up and probably should have come out of the game to begin with.”
Gustavsson is out indefinitely because of concussion symptoms and thus wasn’t in uniform Thursday when the Blues visited the Oilers.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, recently told the Post-Dispatch that the system was put in place for these types of situations.
It is “primarily creating a more consistent approach to spotting and acting on ‘visible signs of concussion,’” Daly said. “A smaller group of trained spotters responsible for watching and evaluating every game will result in more expertise and consistency in the task.”
The cautious approach
Not all hits that look like they might have led to a head injury actually do.
In Vancouver recently, Canucks forward Jake Virtanen was rocked along the boards in a game against Calgary.
He was at the end of his shift anyway, so he went and found a seat on the bench.
A short time later, though, spotters notified to the club to pull Virtanen.
“I felt fine,” he said. “I got crunched right on the boards and it was actually my ribs that hurt more than anything else. My head was fine and it was 100 percent ready to go. It wasn’t anything to do with my head, it was just like an awkward hit. But they just wanted me to go get checked out. I did the whole baseline testing and stuff and made sure I was OK.”
Virtanen estimated that he missed about 12 minutes of the game before returning, but said he didn’t mind.
“I think definitely it’s health before anything else,” he said. “The brain is the most important part of your body and you’ve got to take care of it. If you miss 12 minutes of the game just to make sure you’re OK, I think it’s totally worth it for sure. It’s nice to have that security behind your back.”
Daly acknowledged that when the NHL designed the procedure, the league knew examples like that would arise.
“Everyone recognizes that will happen,” he said. “It’s not about ‘spotting’ concussions, it’s about ‘spotting’ visible signs and doing an appropriate evaluation. Adequate caution and player safety have to (and do) take precedence over (a) player continuing to play with a risk of concussion.”
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who missed time because of a concussion last season, believes it will help having that decision put in someone’s hands other than the players, even if it means losing them for precautionary reasons.
“It always comes down to the individual — if you don’t feel right, then say something,” Bouwmeester said. “But it’s hard, sometimes you’re in the game and you get hit a lot. You don’t feel great, but then give it a couple of minutes and you feel fine. If anything, it just gives guys — if they’re worried — it gives them time. It pulls them off the ice for a couple of minutes instead of going right back out there for a shift still unsure.
“I’m sure it will happen when a team, it’s a close game, and a guy gets hit at the end of the game and they pull him out and he’s fine. I’m sure there will be a lot of instances where it’s nothing and guys will get mad and sick of it. That is what it is, but at the end of the day, it’s good for everyone’s safety and that’s the main concern.”
Hitchcock supports system
Even NHL coaches, whose job security depends on having their best players on the ice, feel that way.
“I hope that I’m not getting a tap on my shoulder every second shift,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, in reference to having players pulled from games. “(But) it’s what is best for the players, it’s what is best for the health of the players. So anytime we can cut it off early, let’s get it done. It’s a hockey game.
“I see these guys try to live their lives now and some of these guys have had very difficult times for years. I’m hoping that by this early detection and this conservative detection that we’re going to be able to really help the players stay healthy and then come back when they’re good and healthy.”
Hitchcock isn’t alone.
“It’s so hard, we’re all so competitive, and the players say they can go, we want them to go,” Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins said. “But I think sometimes it’s good if there’s an independent person taking a look at it. Like Hitchcock said, you hope they don’t overreact in situations. But I think it’s good that they’re being looked at.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville agreed.
“I think that’s great progression for the league,” Quenneville said. “The way it’s evolved each and every year, there’s a heightened awareness to concussions and there’s one more level or layer to make sure the players are safe. That awareness in the central-command area is one thing we’ll work with and we’re behind.”
The bottom line
It might not be a perfect system yet, but that’s OK, Perron said.
“It’s probably not going to be perfect, but I think we’ve seen that the other way around is far from perfect,” he said. “I’m sure there’s going to be stuff like that that we can debate all day. But it’s work in progress and as long as we keep taking steps as a league, it’s good.”