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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What is wrong with the NHL's concussion protocol?

By on 4/23/2014 12:00:00 PM

The concussion issue in sports is like a freight train that's been picking up speed for years. All four major sports - MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL - have addressed the seriousness of head injuries.  It is no longer about “being tough” or just “getting your bell rung.” It is now considered a serious injury that involves arguably more precaution and testing than any other injury.

The NHL is a league that has become increasingly aware of the problems that can arise from concussions and trying to break the archaic mold that surrounded head injuries. It took the deaths of Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard and the career-ending concussion to Marc Savard for the NHL to get serious about protecting their players from head injuries. Unfortunately, they’re not serious enough.

Over the last week, we have seen two stories arise that are extremely troubling for a league that prides itself on its work in decreasing head injuries and protecting their players. Steven Stamkos returned to game three against the Montreal Canadiens where he may have suffered a possible concussion. Reports have also come out that suggest Steve Downie has been playing with a concussion all season long.

Clockwise from top-left: Andre Ringuette, Getty / Mark Buckner, Getty / Screengrab

Both of these instances show us that the NHL isn’t where it needs to be on its concussion protocol. In fact, it’s not even close.

There is insurmountable evidence that shows us how devastating concussions can be. Former NHL and NFL players have launched lawsuits against their respective leagues for failing to protect those decades ago. In addition, former athlete deaths in both the NHL and NFL show major brain damage that seems to be caused from repetitive contact and concussions.

The difference between the NFL and NHL is that the NFL has taken serious steps in trying to protect their players. Their concussion protocol says any player that has suffered a possible concussion will immediately be removed from the game with no chance to return. It doesn’t have to be a diagnosed concussion, only a “possible” one.

They also have a neuro-trauma expert physician who is unaffiliated with the NFL present at every single game to administer testing to any player suspected of having a concussion. In order for a player to return to game action, he has to be cleared by the team physician and an unaffiliated concussion expert approved by the NFL and NFLPA.

The NFL makes it almost impossible for a player to return to action if he is still having symptoms. Unless a player lies and passes every single test, he is not coming back.

The NHL is not as strict, and the recent Stamkos-Downie issues show us the problem may be bigger than we think. The new protocol introduced in 2011 makes it mandatory for a player to enter the dressing room to be evaluated as opposed to the old model, which allowed for bench evaluations. However, there is no separate concussion doctor. Players are even allowed to return in the same game if the team physician – who is not a head-trauma expert – allows them to. For all we know, players could have significant influence over their trainers.

Stamkos reportedly complained about a “headache” after being kneed in the head but told the trainer that he really wanted to play. He was allowed to return for the third period.  Steven Downie has missed extensive hockey on three separate occasions this season, all reportedly stemming from a concussion he suffered on November 1. That was six months ago. Downie may have concussion issues from an injury that he suffered six months ago and the Flyers have been letting him play through it.

These are instances that should not be happening in 2014. No player should be allowed to return to a game after experiencing headaches stemming from contact to the head. No player should be playing through headaches all season long.

Circumstance does not matter. The fact that the Lightning were down 2-0 in the series should not mean Stamkos – one of the best players in world – should be allowed to return to help his team. That is a backwards way of thinking that is going to result in a serious injury if things do not change.

It does not help that NHL teams are cryptic about every injury. Injuries are always labeled as either upper or lower body injuries. It allows teams to stay quiet about concussions and maybe rush players back because they think winning is more important than the long-term health of a human being.

Players should not have an option. They should not be allowed to convince team doctors to let them play. I may be wrong. Players might not force their doctors to clear them. But I also may be right and that is the problem.

David Backes, who suffered an “upper-body injury” which is most likely a concussion after being hit from behind by Brent Seabrook, probably wants to play right now. He’s the captain of the St. Louis Blues in the midst of their Stanley Cup Playoff run. The NHL and the St. Louis Blues should not let him play until he is 100 percent healthy, no matter what.

If the NHL really wants to embrace protecting their players, they would fix their concussion protocol. The NFL is on the right track and the NHL is not.

We may have to wait for a player to be seriously injured because of a mistreated concussion for the NHL to change its handling of head injuries. 

NHL, please don't let it come to that. Fix your concussion protocol.

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