Jonathan Toews (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jonathan Toews was drilled head-first into the boards at an awkward angle by Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg Thursday – but for as bad as the hit was, it was just as awful to see Hawks medical staff allow Toews to continue playing.
You want to believe the medical officials entrusted with NHL players' health are always erring on the side of caution. Then you see
Jonathan Toews returning to play immediately after taking an absolutely brutal hit from Boston's
Dennis Seidenberg Thursday, and the doubts don't creep in – they stampede over you. The Blackhawks captain and NHL star was driven headfirst into the boards at an awkward angle by Seidenberg midway through the second period of
Chicago's game against the host Bruins, and the result was enough to turn your stomach regardless of whether you're a Hawks fan:
We can sit here and argue about the cleanliness of the hit itself – and the play
will be reviewed by the league – but the fact Chicago's medical staff and coaches allowed Toews to play his next shift is even more troubling. If this wasn't the time to have Toews – a superstar who has a
concussions – sent to the quiet room to be evaluated, then there isn't ever a good time to do so. But what likely happened was the Hawks trainer asked Toews if he was good enough to continue with his next shift – and, just as every NHLer has been conditioned over the course of his life to answer, Toews said yes. He
eventually left the game, but the sight of a star player being left open to additional injury (and perhaps an early end to his career) because nobody had the stones to tell him to get off the ice for his own good was and is deeply disturbing. Even if you presume Toews wasn't in a haze and knew full well what he was saying, his word alone isn't good enough for him to continue playing after a hit like that.
As we learn more about
traumatic brain injuries, that's no longer a valid reason. The league stepping back and allowing athletes to serve as their own physicians is ridiculous, especially when you acknowledge that the strongest muscle hockey players are trained and pushed to develop is that heart muscle – the muscle behind the single-minded drive that allows players to compartmentalize physical pain in pursuit of a team victory. So long as they can draw a breath and stand semi-upright, hockey players are going to insist on playing. It's the responsibility of the Hawks organization and the league to tell players things they won't want to hear right now, but that they'll be eternally thankful to have heard when they're 50 or 60 and in full control of their faculties. Even from a dehumanized, financial asset perspective, the Hawks' treatment of Toews is highly questionable. So far, the organization
has invested $123.9 million in him over three contracts. If he's lost forever to one too many concussions, there's no athlete out there who can replace him. So you'd think they'd treat his brain like a
Faberge egg, but they're treating it like a damned
Easter Creme Egg. This is all the more reason why the NHL needs independent doctors to evaluate players before clearing them to return. Far too often, NHLers are deferred to in a way no other sport defers to its athletes' competitive nature. Indeed, when you examine the situation closely, you see the NHL's players have in effect decided they're doctors and they best know their bodies, and the league's medial staffers have apparently decided they're members of the team as opposed to professionals paid to render dispassionate judgements in protection of players' health. By bringing in independent physicians the way boxing promoters are made to do, the NHL would put the power of diagnosis and treatment where it belongs: in the hands of doctors who have no emotional stake in the outcome of the competition. Right now, it's falling into the hands of players. And whether people with romantic notions of the game's history care to hear it or not, that's not what hockey players are paid to do. They're paid to perform their duties on the ice, not take care of themselves for the short and long term. That's what the medical professionals are supposed to do. But that didn't happen for Jonathan Toews Thursday night. And if it doesn't happen for one of the best players on the planet today, no other NHLer should expect their best interests will be looked after on any given night. If the league is truly intent on changing that terrible pattern, beginning immediately, its medical people must stop asking NHLers if they can play and depending on famously prideful athletes to self-report to do their jobs. The question the doctors and trainers should be asking isn't whether NHLers can play. It's whether players