New York's Matt Martin throws a punch at Maxime Talbot during the infamous Penguins-Islanders dust up. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
In the March 21 issue of THN magazine, Adam Proteau canvassed people inside and out of the NHL to outline ideas on how to solve the concussion problems plaguing hockey.
The following points are the final four of a seven-point piece. The first half of the article appeared Thursday.
There is renewed debate regarding the state and evolution of the hockey helmet as a prevention for concussions; the Mark Messier-endorsed Cascade helmet claims to offer increased protection against head trauma, while a recent MacLean’s magazine article quoted researchers who believe a hardened, rounded helmet is better at protecting the head against the particular angles of hockey collisions.
But there is near-universal agreement that elite hockey players are now overprotected by body armor-type equipment that can be used as much as a weapon as it is a protector.
“I feel like players have such a sense of invincibility; they throw themselves at other players without any care for even their own bodies,” said former NHLer and current L.A. Kings pro scout Alyn McCauley, who retired before he turned 30 after repeated head injuries that began in junior. “More times than not it’s the other player that gets hurt, but if you didn’t have so much padding on to have that sense of invincibility, you might ease up a little bit.”
“I call it the ‘Brian Burke Bear Hug Rule,’” said Pierre McGuire, referring to the Maple Leafs GM who has argued in favor of a slight return to obstruction tactics - basically, allowing a defender to grab hold of his opponent momentarily before a check near the boards - as a safety measure.
A recent example of dangerous play the bear hug rule would change came in a February game when Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp chased down Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin and wound up knocking the blueliner into the boards, sidelining him with an upper-body injury.
“If that rule is implemented and Martin is in a foot race with Sharp and Sharp is allowed to bear-hug him for a second or two - not to deny him forward progress, but just to soften the blow - that probably leads to no injury,” McGuire said.
Keith Primeau also thinks there needs to be a return to tougher physical battles - at least, in the end zone areas where many questionable hits are occurring.
“My biggest contention when they made the rule changes coming out of the lockout was I thought they were too drastic,” Primeau said. “I thought they should’ve allowed the end zone battles where you have to fight for the puck. You could still have the freedom to move through the neutral zone, but when you have freewheeling bodies all over the ice, it’s a recipe for disaster. I felt that at the time and I still feel that.”
Any rational discussion of head shots would be remiss without reference to the obvious and intentional head shots that occur with every hockey fight. The culture of the North American game dictates fisticuffs are acceptable, but if more players are suffering non-fighting concussions, should they ever engage in another fight again?
It’s one of many player-safety-related questions that are best answered by strong steering from the game’s gatekeepers, said a leading Canadian neurosurgeon and researcher with a keen interest in hockey-related concussions.
“There has to be leadership at the top levels of the sport,” said Dr. Michael Cusimano of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto. “Otherwise, over the long term, the sport is going to suffer tremendously for this short-sighted idea that we can’t change hockey because the changes are for wimps.”
If fighting in hockey is not a natural but a cultural occurrence - and the approach to the game outside of North America strongly suggests it is - the easiest way to change the culture that approves of fighting and accepts head injuries as a cost of doing business is to change the rules.
“Culture changes slowly, but if you change rules, the culture will follow quickly,” Cusimano said. “If you say, ‘let’s change the culture,’ nobody knows what that entails. But if you say, ‘let’s change the rules,’ everybody immediately understands what that means. That changes the culture.”
Given the NHL’s current attitude toward immediate diagnosis of concussions (currently teams ask players questions at ice level and gauge their answers before deciding to allow them to continue playing) and the ongoing medical discoveries about head injuries, it seems a fait accompli that there will be an evolution in the way concussions are identified and in how long players are kept out as precautionary measures after they’ve sustained one.
“The instant (a concussion) happens, how do we take the onus out of the hands of the player who wants to compete and the organization that wants the player to compete and still be medically responsible?” Primeau said. “That’s where we need to make the strongest changes.”
McCauley advocates standardized, mandatory patience.
“I really like that gradual process of getting the player back onto the ice,” he said. “The shortest term would be seven days - a week to make sure you’re healthy. Even with an NHL schedule, you’re talking three games you’d be out for. That’s not a lot to make sure you’re healthy, not just for when you return, but for the rest of your life.”
This article originally appeared in the March 21 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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