The Concussion “Epidemic”
Concussions have become as main stream as movies, popcorn and teenie-boppers. Sadly, those outside the “hockeyverse” have learned more about hockey through the talk about concussions and CTE than they could by watching this wonderful sport that we treat like a religion. As of now, it seems to my untrained mind that science has not pinpointed and separated the types and degrees of concussions, if that exists, and still has trouble defining what a concussion actually is, scientifically speaking, and what the definitive long term effects of head trauma are. Finally, we don’t know if repeated low impact blows to the head are as dangerous, or possibly more dangerous, than fewer massive blows. For more on that see this National Geographic article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/big-idea/concussions-text#.
It could be that our hyper-awareness of the danger of head injuries has led to more concussions being diagnosed thus increasing the number of concussions reportedly suffered. The days of “getting your bell rung” are over. So no matter what, the numbers are going to be skewed. They will remain so until medically scientific research is able to parse out the exact nature of the concussion and how to treat it. Further, not all concussions are caused by direct contact to the head. The actual concussion occurs from the brain slamming into the cranium. Thus, many players receive concussions, over 51.2 percent, from secondary impact following the body check.
A recent Sports Illustrated article claimed that for every 100 NHL games played, 5.23 players suffer from a concussion, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nhl/news/20130719/nhl-concussions-hits-to-head-study. You can find the actual Medical Journal article here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0069122. The study shows that Rule 48, and the NHL crackdown on hits to the head have showed absolutely no improvement on the rate of players sustaining concussions. So if the rule changes are not going to help save our ice heroes, what will? And with the NHL facing a class action law suit, it’s time to get serious about reducing the number of avoidable, career-threatening injuries in the game. Here are five suggestions for reducing concussions. I have no medical training, no expertise and am merely speaking as a fan.
5. Shoulder Pads
My reasoning here is simple: which would you rather be hit in the head with: a shoulder muscle or a hard plastic pad meant to deflect and absorb the force of impact? The answer, for those of you that have not suffered massive repeated head trauma, would be the regular human shoulder muscle. As the technology surrounding the armor that our ice heroes wear has improved, so has the damage that the padding can do to the body that it’s striking. Much like SUV’s, while the person wearing the padding might be protected, the head and body that the padding is striking, is not as protected.
My theory is that if padding was reduced, players would not only be more conscious of hitting squarely to protect themselves, but the human body, which was engineered through thousands of years of evolution, would be able to more safely absorb the impact from a fellow human.
4. Larger Ice
This is a no-brainer. Right now, the NHL ice sheet is 200 feet in length and 85 feet in width. As we saw in Sochi, Russia, the Olympic sheet is also 200 feet in length, but 100 feet in width. Olympic hockey is much less congested and much more conducive to the modern breakout style of hockey being played in the NHL.
With two linesmen, two referees, two goaltenders with their trapezoid, net and crease as well as six forwards and four defenders the NHL ice size can get very, very crowded. This means that there will be more low impact hits due to ice congestion. We have even seen instances of players on the same team crashing into each other and suffering concussions due to the sheer speed of the game and the ice congestion.
Adding a mere five feet of width to the NHL ice, which would make the NHL ice size 200 feet in length and 90 feet in width would be a nice compromise between owners, who don’t want to lose valuable, expensive ticket sales, and player safety.
3. Two-Line Pass
We just talked about ice congestion, well let’s talk about speed. The NHL wants goals, speed and big hits. Those are what the NHL presumes sells tickets due to their excitement. That was the NHL’s reasoning behind eliminating the two-line pass.
We all played NHL video games growing up and we all turned off the two-line pass and the off-sides (as well as line changes) so we could power our way to a virtual Stanley Cup. Why did we do that: because the game was easier, faster and more exciting without those rules in place. That’s all well and good in virtual world where players don’t suffer injuries, but in the real world, that’s a dangerous cocktail.
The new pace of breakout hockey stresses moving the puck quickly from the defender, that “first pass”, to the neutral zone and through to the offensive zone for a breakaway or odd-man rush. This leads to more open ice hits because players are not only skating at speeds that would get them pulled over in a school zone but also because they are looking for that pass rather than keeping their head up.
Bringing the two-line pass would slow the play down in the neutral zone, forcing a regroup into the offensive zone which would greatly reduce the speed at which open ice hits, which at least look to be the most brutal, occur.
2. Allow for more Interference
Watching Women’s Hockey at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi I was struck by how much interference they allow along the wall and around the blue line. A lot more of the “Lidstrom” type defense along the blue line (hands to the chest!) and a lot more clutching around the boards. This really slows the players down and reduces the hits that the players to which the players are vulnerable.
I suggest that the NHL adopt this approach. If we recall the Patrick Kaleta hit on Brad Richards (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9e7NaNWzcg), we can break down how this would help. First, we have to imagine that it’s not Patrick Kaleta but some other NHL player with respect for fellow players that wouldn’t attempt to injure someone. That hit is probably one of the most dangerous hits in hockey, second to only the cross check to the lower back on a full speed puck race. But the problem is that the defensive player has no choices. He cannot clutch and grab because he will be called for holding. He can’t check the player into the boards because he will be called for boarding since the offensive player has turned his back square to the defender a la Dennis Rodman.
This creates a rock and a hard place situation for defensemen that would be made much safer if a little clutching and grabbing were allowed along the boards. It’s safer to be held than it is to be thrown full force and face first into the boards.
1. Concussion Research
Finally, as Tony from AZ would say, “Research, research, research.” There are two options: either prevent concussions or learn how to properly diagnose and treat them. So far, preventing them has proven to be more difficult than initially assumed. Similarly, diagnosing and treating is another grey area that requires a lot of research.
The NHL and the NHLPA should be pouring millions of dollars into concussion research on an annual basis to protect not only the players but the league and the sport. It is vital that the medical community learn to identify, grade and treat concussions effectively before they turn into long term brain damage.
Photo by Getty Images.