THE HUMAN TOLL: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

With Sidney Crosby’s hockey career hanging in the balance because of concussions and Marc Savard’s apparently over, the NHL’s overdue decision to address headshots in the game is a classic case of being a day late and a dollar short.

Given the alarming number of NHL players who’ve been forced to retire because of concussions in the past decade and the growing body of medical evidence of the short-term and long-term effects of concussions on the brain, why has it taken having the career of the game’s marquee name, Crosby, put in jeopardy to prompt the league to address the issue?

Aside from attention to concussions beyond lip service being a case of better late than never, protocols and rule changes being put in place and contemplated for the 2011-12 season by NHL decision-makers don’t go nearly far enough.

How much brain damage in the name of the game, in the name of our entertainment, is enough? How many players will have careers ended and their long-term health and well-being compromised by concussions before the NHL eliminates all head shots?

It can’t happen soon enough.

DEVASTATING TOLL

Crosby’s struggles with post-concussion symptoms have forced the issue of head shots to the top of commissioner Gary Bettman’s list of things to do because he’s the biggest name in the game. Having the career of Savard, a very good player but not a household name, cut short in a life-impairing fog has helped to do likewise.

But, considering the long list of players who’ve been impaired by concussions, it should never have taken this long for the NHL and NHLPA to stop looking the other way and do something about it.

You want a list marquee players who’ve had their careers cut short by concussions? Off the top of my head, there’s Pat LaFontaine, in 1998, Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, Geoff Courtnall and Adam Deadmarsh. Will Crosby be the next? We don’t know.

Tough guys? Raitis Ivanans, Matthew Barnaby, Stu Grimson, Gino Odjick, Cam Stewart, Nick Kypreos, Kevin Kaminski and Robin Bawa. Other players forced to retire include Dave Scatchard, Brad Werenka, Jayson More, Dean Chynoweth, Brett Lindros, Steve Rucchin, Jeff Beukeboom, Steven Rice and former Oiler Paul Comrie.

With the risks inherent in the game, that list is certain to grow no matter what rules are put in place — concussions can and do occur because of physical contact where there is no direct blow to the head. That said, it’s the responsibility of the NHL to mitigate those risks.

TIME HAS COME

While rule changes regarding blindside hits to the head and protocols calling for more thorough assessments of players showing any signs of concussion are a start, they don’t go far enough.

There is a growing number of people who believe any blow to the head of a player, by blindside hit or otherwise, should be dealt with by penalties and supplemental discipline. I count myself in that group.

That calls into question, among other things, the issue of eliminating fighting, which I’ve already written about oilersnation.com/2011/3/21/fighting-what-cost-tradition. That’s a question I would never have entertained 10 years ago. It’s part of the game, after all. If you don’t like it, go play badminton, right?

Of course, with the pay scale in the NHL, there will always be young men willing to take whatever risks are involved without a single thought about the long-term consequences. NHL career? Where do I sign up? And there will always be fans willing to buy tickets to watch them do it.

Given the medical evidence and the growing list of casualties, it’s time to re-think what’s an acceptable level of risk for players. Likewise, what grim realities we’re willing to turn a blind eye to in the name of entertainment.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • justDOit

    Why hasn’t the NHL/NHLPA banned the “football style” shoulder pads and hard plastic/kevlar elbow pads? To me this is such an obvious first step towards player safety.

  • Hemmertime

    They players know the risks. They are paid way more than members of our military.

    If you don’t like the risks don’t play the game. The people who’s parents are too touchy about the risks never let their kids play. Thats fine. Players have broken legs and hit their heads against the end boards, maybe we should pad them all with nerf foam.

    Headshots happen, injuries happen. Leave the game alone. Can increase suspensions so they have meaning if something was determined to be intent to injure but a rule change would be going to far. We already have charging, boarding, elbowing, spearing. All those should be enough guidelines on what you can and can’t do. If you change the rules players will play even more reckless because theres some words on a piece of paper saying “He shouldn’t hit me in this position” and there will be way worse injuries. If I knew I might score 10 more goals a season because I put my head in the way of any body check to dissuade the hitter – I would do so. Thats a HUGE difference in pay for an NHLer who scores 20 or who scores 30.

  • Gretzkin

    *Due to the squeemishness of today’s society all professional sports (except soccer, golf and tennis) have been cancelled until further notice* – Note: These are the same people that would have cheered loudly and high fived had Peckham gotten a hold of Avery last season, etc,etc.
    Hockey, being the new sport that it is turns out to be very dangerous after all.
    Surely intentional head hits should be punished and even accidental within reason (Naslund was reaching, for example, not Moore’s fault). People have been going crazy lately in the wake of the tragedies of this summer that may or may not have anything to do with blows to the head. Belak never suffered a concusion, according to him. Rypien was a very sick individual and Boogard? Well, maybe. Post concussion drug addiction. It’s possible (not proven)
    We all know there is a risk to play contact sports, there always has been. The players know this and I do agree that there are ways to make it safer and I think all avenues should be checked.
    Take out the instigator rather than fighting. Let the players re-learn fear and respect.
    This all makes the saying, “you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette” ring true.
    Just keep in mind, the deaths of the players this summer is more a byproduct of their roles and what it does to their mental health. The issues with the Savard’s and Crosby’s a different.
    Make it safe, but don’t take out the excitement and danger, that’s what hockey is all about, like it or not.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Fireman die long before their time.
    Miners die long before their time.
    Some of our military die long before their time. What’s wrong with the game of hockey giving its share as well.

    The one constant that comes with living in the free world is that we’re all guilty of the choices we’ve made. Hockey players are just people too.

    • Wax Man Riley

      What’s wrong with hockey giving it’s share?

      Hockey players aren’t saving people from burning buildings or natural disasters. Even when firefighters are doing this, safety comes first.

      Same goes for miners. I won’t start on the military.

    • Firefighters and military personnel don’t risk life and limb for our entertainment, they accept risks to save lives.

      Firefighters, miners and military personnel take every possible precaution to lessen the risks of their professions. Is hockey doing the same?

      By the way, how many brain-damaged players constitutes “hockey giving its share as well?” What’s wrong with that? You’ve got to be kidding.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        And every hockey player accepted the risks for the sake of that contract. Nobody is forcing these kids to participate. Hockey players knowingly risk their lives for the sake of the standard of living it will afford them, nothing more.

        Virtually all of the players on your list knowingly/willingly engaged in the most dangerous part of the game. For some, this may have been the reason they were fortunate enough to wear an NHL jersey in the first place.

        I’m sympathetic towards the 3 families affected during this difficult summer but these are just isolated incidents that by coincidence happened within 3 months of each other. Contrary to popular belief, the sky isn’t falling.

        Considering this article was written by the president of the Rudy Poeschek fan club, thank you for another spirited effort Robin.

        • Wax Man Riley

          I just skimmed the article again, and nowhere does it link the 3 deaths this summer to concussions.

          This isn’t about the 3 deaths, It’s about keeping players safe and on the ice for our entertainment.

          What world do you live in? comparing Firefighters saving lives to hockey players playing a game. Your view of the world would have us smack dab in the movie The Running Man. Everyone would just kill each other for our entertainment.

        • Wax Man Riley

          I think the argument is also about the price players have to pay for your entertainment.

          If your son/daughter/cousin/nephew/friend was debilitated due to the carelessness happening during a fun game, wouldn’t you want something done? Knowing that it more than likely could have been prevented? Or would you just look at that person and say “Tough Sh*t. you knew the risks, now walk it off!”

          “But QSB, I can’t feel my legs”

    • Vintage Flame

      “What’s wrong with the game of hockey giving its share as well.”

      Really? No really??

      Needless to say that I think this is my far the dumbest thing I’ve EVER read, doesn’t even scratch the surface.

      Wow..

      • Quicksilver ballet

        3 guys died and many more will continue to perish as years go by, get used to it. We are all guilty of the choices we’ve made in life, how we depart this world is unique to every persons decision they’ve made. These guys as well as ourselves are fortunate that we even have the freedom to choose our own path.

        It’s easy to come around and hurl an insult and depart before backing it up. What can we expect from just another idiot from Calgary.

        Please feel free to come by and throw another rock and run you little pansy.

        • Vintage Flame

          Ya people die everyday, and most of them go without being noticed or have a tear shed. But you’re comparing Hockey players that have died from a category completely separate from ‘unnatural causes’, to people that have given their lives in the line of duty, MOST likely saving the lives of others.

          Where is the common ground here? They have absolutely nothing to do with each other. If you had compared the deaths of the 3 to that of a performer, say even the tragedy that befell Owen Hart, I could understand. But Firefighters and the Military… Dumb!

          You know I might be inclined to throw another rock, but I just wouldn’t want to add one more thing to the room that is smarter than you.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            Firemen,Policemen,Miners,Construction workers,blah blah blah,yada yada yada. They all have the potential to leave long before their time.

            The comparisons are justified. Everyone of them had the freedom to choose their own path. Some may perish saving others, some may perish just to provide sustenance for their families while a few may pay the price while providing entertainment for the masses. It matters little what we all choose to do during the time we have here. They’re dead, get over yourself.

          • ChinookArchYYC

            Justified or not. fighting will be eliminated and head shots will become a major penalty. Like or not, it won’t be their choice any longer.

            PS being a contrarian doesn’t make you the smartest person on the Internet.

          • Quicksilver ballet

            I’m well aware of that sir. Not everyone enjoys taking the path of least resistance. Sometimes it’s more stimulating to swim against the tide. It sometimes leads to some interesting conversations if whomever you’re at odds with is remotely mature. The younger ones usually just fast forward to name calling which is okay. This is all here for our amusement…..and where else can one go to get beat up and not require medical attention?

  • Gretzkin

    Well i have to chime in on this.

    The equipment is harder than the ice when its coming at you the speed a player is going. Why did it ever have to change….wasnt it initially to protect a player?

    Head gear….as silly as it sounds and i have no research on this but why from a safety standpoint arent the players heads further protected. The jaw, face?
    Can someone give me a reason why players can wear some type of hybrid football/lacrosse style helmet?
    Man code with face shields and the stigma behind wearing them is crap….havent we evolved a tad bit more when it comes to as Tom Renney would say “manning up?”
    Drop the tough guy act and protect the players. Dont make it optional and the stigma being man enough is gone.

    Speaking of stigma’s regarding being too much of a man to discuss problems. I cant help stopping to ask why we are so quick to assume that these recent unfortunate deaths are a result of just getting pounded in the head.
    Yes depression could be link to damage to the brain but why are people afraid to ask the more taboo question of substance abuse? Im by now means saying Rypien or Belak had these concerns but we dont know do we??
    Numerous players have been known to dabble in substances and party pretty hard. Direct link to depression (alcohol being a depressant itself)
    Boogie man himself was the only player that has been tied to it in the past 3 deaths.

    Dont be so quick to rule this out as a concern for professional atheletes. I find it more of a coincidence with the concussion issue being so prevalant.

    My questions if i was in the media circles to the powers that be are.

    What is the drug test policy and if its only random then someone better wake up and be a little more serious with its substance abuse policy.

    Give a 20 year old a couple million, an image of a god in a hockey city, no rules or guidance or accountability and see what happens. Any hockey fan has either heard first hand or second hand info where they have witnessed a NHL player partying hard. Im suprised these occurences havent happened more frequently but mark my words it will increase if something isnt done.

    I asked a specific agent at one point why the young players or teams dont have a “life skills” coach to ensure that these young men understand the risks involved in the choices they are making or allow them to have someone to connect or confide to and my response was the NHL has a substance abuse program? What does that have to do with prevention?
    They arent able to talk to other because they are still taught the old school approach of “manning up”.

    So when we look at concussions and the recent tragic losses i would be inclined to say be careful because it may just be timing.

    I could list numerous players that have experienced significant impacts in thier life as a result of substance abuse and working in a mental health field i think unfortunatly we dont ask the tough and taboo questions.

    My suggestion would be “man up” and ask the real questions!!

    Once again i must stress im not saying that Mr.Belak or Mr.Rypien were struggling a substance abuse problem but i guarentee its an issue in the NHL.
    In regards to Mr.Rypien and potentially Mr.Belak…..suicide = mental health, and the NHL and organizations needs to do more around supporting players with thier mental health just as much or more than physical health. Its not just a result of getting brain damage from hits or punches in the face. A voluntary psychologist on staff just doesnt cut it.

  • striatic

    “Fireman die long before their time. Miners die long before their time. Some of our military die long before their time. What’s wrong with the game of hockey giving its share as well.”

    assuming this isn’t a rhetorical question ..

    firemen and soldiers risk their lives in order to save the lives of others and preserve freedom. even then, fire departments and militaries go to great lengths in attempting to mitigate these risks.

    miners? miners shouldn’t have to die before their time. that’s an issue of poor working conditions and shoddy labour practices and being less than ridiculously careful in an industry that is ridiculously dangerous when not approached with care and restraint.

    the stakes in those areas are on a completely different level than those present in professional hockey.

    i LOVE a good hockey scrap. i cheered when sMac dropped Ivanans last year. that’s because hockey is about passion and your brain kinda goes into some primordial state where the battle is everything and that kind of thing is fun to watch. so long as fighting and devastating hits are in the game, i’m probably going to cheer for them. they’re fun and i don’t want to have to ‘censor’ my thoughts while watching hockey, because watching hockey is what i like to do when i want to be totally un-self-critical. i’m not ashamed of that mindset *in the moment* and i don’t think i ought to be, but when the game is over and i read about the debilitating effects that kind of play has on body and brain – whatever fun i get out of it, just isn’t worth it.

    when i watch women’s hockey, or olympic hockey, or the world juniors, i don’t miss the fighting or the hitting at all. i don’t even THINK about the fighting or hitting until it actually happens, and if it doesn’t i’m not disappointed in the slightest. fighting and hitting is “part of the NHL game” as it currently exists but it isn’t “what hockey is all about”.

    if fighting is removed from NHL hockey, i’m not going to lie .. the games will be less entertaining for me to watch.. but if fighting is removed and replaced by more of the other things in the game that i like just as much? strategy, hustle, unalloyed skill? would i be less entertained then?

    no, i think i’d like the game just the same.

    if fewer human beings suffer career [and life] ending injuries, and i end up liking the game just as much as i do now, i think that’s a win even if a particular aspect of the game i enjoy has to be removed and replaced.

    • Well I never claimed to be a good person, but assuming I did then it would be hypocritical of me to turn around and wish bad things upon others and their families.

      I didnt think that wishing that the NHL use safer equipment before changing its rules made me a bad person though.

    • Hemmertime

      You sir are an idiot and even worse than them. Their opinions were thought out and articulated. You are saying “I disagree so you should die”

      Face it, Boogaard mixed Alcohol and Drugs, he was stupid. Now he’s dead due to it. It says on the damn label not to do it. He partied himself into the grave. Im not going to shed a tear or think of any “solutions” to the problem of stupidity.

      Headshots are fine for discussion (though no rule would have stopped the accidental contact that hurt Crosby). But having people kill themselves due to being depressed or stupid isn’t something we need to change the game for. Theo Fleury got help – there are systems in place for players to get it, lets expand those.

      But Im sick of people including Boogaard in all these stories, he was just plain dumb, thats it.

      *edit – woot, comment #83

      • bigguy13

        In civil society not all opinions are legitimate and worthy of voice. They endorsed gladiatorial combat with a gleefulness that passed beyond crass. Their views are shameful and they deserve to be excoriated as such.

        • So I should enjoy hockey, but not the part where grown men pitch against eachother in a violent battle for fame and money with thousands watching and cheering?

          You cant be serious. Am I on Candid Camera? Am I being Punk’d?

    • Wanyes bastard child

      Was at a golf tournament & sat by Bearcat at the dinner & I asked him. He definitely felt this football equipment & the increased speed of the game are the main contributors to seriousness of concussions.
      Thing is, we want to keep the speed of the game & I think larger surface, no touch icings, softer padding will be the right steps to reducing these type of injuries. Fighting is fighting, maybe if we took out the instigator and let the players police the cheap shot offenders without costing their team a game changing power play, we might be able to get some of that garbage out. Concussions are going to happen in this game, the ice & boards are mighty hard surfaces & players will take some awkward falls & have some accidental collisions. I heard a real stupid take at a poker table but in a retarded way there is an underlying point, he said, too much $$$ involved that gives a mediocre player way too much incentive to injure another player, they should drop prices of tickets and pay the players less. How about that for outside the box. 🙂

  • Mitch

    @ Brownlee

    What I want to know the answer to is what are the team doctors saying. I don’t look at this as a fighting issue or a hockey issue. What types of treatment are being given what meds. This could be anyone. Worst part is 3 people are dead, two suicide and one overdose. I don’t get it. I would never want to kill myself, but I don’t think it’s something you would only spend 5 minutes pondering.

  • Eulers

    Here’s a related idea: why does the NHL allow it’s players to play without a neck guard?? Does someone have to die before that rule gets accepted, because we’ve come awful close a couple times. For heaven’s sake, hockey players wear knives on their feet and we don’t even have that simple rule.

    Anyone remember last year when Taylor Hall was tossed on his head behind the opponent’s net? His skates were right at the height to do some serious damage. It’s rare but it happens.

  • Little Buttcheeks

    All I know is that Sidney Crosby and Marc Savard sell tickets and put butts in seats. I like a big hit as good as the next guy but the idea is to take him off the puck, not send him off a stretcher. I know that the game is fast paced but cheap shots like guys such as Matt Cooke like to throw have no place in the game. As much of a weiner as Cooke is, it’s the NHL’s responsibility to make these players understand what is a clean hit and what is not because people don’t play to see guys like Cooke, they pay to see guys like Savard.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Why don’t they treat head shots like high sticking?

    Even when its not on purpose or if it’s an accident a high sticking is always called. The reason behind this is because you are supposed to be in control of your stick at all times. Continue this reasoning into something like “A player should know/respect another player at all times and whenever any contact to the head whether incidental or not shall be issued a 2-4-5 minute penalty with further purview pending upon review of said incident”

    Or something along that lines, im not sure how they word the rules in the rule book eh.

    Basically what im trying to get at is, with high sticking calls you are supposed to be in control and know where your stick is at all times. It should be the same with shots to the head, you know where your opponents head is in relation to your self so in theory you should be able to avoid hitting said opponents head. I know it sounds easier said then done, but couldn’t it be a start?

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Things they should do:

    – equipment: all protection worn over the forearms, elbows and shoulders area must be covered by an approved type of foam at an approved thickness.

    – get rid of staged fights with immediate 10 game suspensions. If a spontaneous fight breaks out, fine, but the gladiators facing off to bore us all to death are a waste of time and embarassing. And a 10 year old can tell the difference, so don’t use that as an argument.

    – if a concussion is deemed deliberate then the offender should be suspended for 20 games minimum automatically or for as long as the injured player is out as determined by a 3rd part doctor.

    – no hits to the head. Period.

    – eliminate the 4th line from hockey. This alone would clear most everything up. The 4th line is populated by nothing but has-beens, never-wases, goons and the beyond-marginally-skilled. they chew up maybe 2 or 3 minutes of ice time/game in most cases. It’s a waste of roster space and salary and in even of injury teams could always dress a spare.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I agree with Quicksilver. These guys are compensated quite well to be apart of entertainment. It’s not just hockey players, there are football players, stunt guys, guys from shows like Jack arse.

    They all know the risks going in and no one is forcing them to do a job that could result in health issues later in life.

    It’s a danger pay and as members of Alberta we should know that there are thousands of workers that get this in this province.

    With all that being said I really agree with what you said about MMA last night Robin. The MMA world on the main stage doesn’t piss around. It’s not rare to see most fighters on a MMA card be suspended due to injuries. Just check out the below link, 16 of 24 guys with some sort of suspension and for the most part minimum 45 day suspension.

    http://mmajunkie.com/news/25026/ufc-134-medical-suspensions-griffin-nedkov-assuncao-and-loveland-out-up-to-six-months.mma

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Unfortunatly, I have to agree with Quicksilver, people die and get injured at work all the time. Maybe not for our entertainment, but for his/her boss to make some more money.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    The problem with this website is that comments on articles quickly deteriorate to name calling and pissing contests. Grow up people. Think. Add value, not vitriol.