The names pile on top of one another like a giant mound of hockey sticks in the world’s biggest pickup game. Evgeni Malkin. Rick Nash. Jeff Skinner. Ryan McDonagh. Vladimir Tarasenko. Only this is a contest you don’t want to play in or watch. This is the concussion game. And despite the NHL’s efforts to address what has become an alarming issue in many sports, there’s still far more the league can do to mitigate the unacceptable number of head injuries we’re seeing.
Before giving me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of putdowns and cliched counterarguments, let me update you as to how my opinion regarding concussions has evolved over the years. I no longer think that a complete headshot ban could work at the NHL level, because the speed of the game creates situations, even when players aren’t being reckless with their bodies, that result in head contact. I accept that penalizing each and every instance of head contact would be changing the game fundamentally. If you want to have that conversation, go ahead, but realize it isn’t likely to happen any time in the next decade.
That said, there are practical, very doable ways for the NHL to go further than it has in protecting players to this point – ways that don’t have any effect at all on the way the game is played.
The first is mandatory sit-out periods for concussed players. Although league vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan disagreed with the concept when we spoke in January, I’ve spoken to players and people within the game who agree that, say, one week off for any player showing signs of a head injury wouldn’t be too much to ask to be on the safe side. More than likely, that span of time on the sidelines would result in, at most, three games out of the lineup for a player. Three missed games to cut down on the possibility of a second concussion in short order is a solid compromise between a player’s natural-born competitiveness and the cool hand of science and long-term health.
The second way in which the NHL can take long strides toward a safer workplace is more drastic, but worth debating: independent doctors to examine players. I’m not casting aspersions on the character of the league’s team physicians, but there’s a reason why the medical community heavily discourages doctors from treating friends and family: if they have an emotional connection to another human being, it’s only natural their judgment could be compromised, if only on a subconscious level.
Indeed, when these NHL team doctors are working with players all year long, it’s no stretch to imagine they might tend to trust player’s word and permit him to continue playing through a concussion, whereas a dispassionate stranger of a physician might be more cautious. And when you consider that in other sports – say, boxing or mixed martial arts – athletes’ health is governed by an independent oversight commission, it seems strange that the NHL has been allowed to remain in charge of its own medical professionals for as long as they have.
I mean, would anyone be happy if notorious boxing promoter Don King was permitted to hire his own group of doctors for fighters under his employ? Of course not. So why is it permissible for professional hockey – where a player could engage in bare-knuckle fights on back-to-back nights – to not live up to that same standard?
I’m not abandoning my belief that Shanahan and the owners and GMs who provide him with a mandate – as well as the NHL Players’ Association, which also bears great responsibility on this issue – must dole out much tougher suspensions to force players to be more responsible for their actions and less reckless with their bodies. But if that won’t happen soon, the least the league can do is take better care of its injured athletes after the hurt comes.
The last thing any hockey fan should want to see is the rash of deeply troubled retired athletes like we’re currently seeing with former NFL players. That alone should haunt everyone involved in the sport – and spur them to do more than they’re doing today. Otherwise, more top-flight NHL talent will be sidelined for long stretches, if not for good. And more sticks will be added to hockey’s homeliest pile.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.