Concussions and the NHL: Consequences of Denial, Ignorance and Grit

Sidney Crosby (above), captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the most recent NHL player to have been diagnosed with a concussion this season — and he probably won’t be the last. Is there anything the league can do to better protect its players? (Photo: Kaidia Pickels)

Months ago, I decided I wanted to sit down and write a piece about concussions in hockey. As both a sports fan and the proud owner of my very own brain, head trauma scares me, and I’m not alone; a class-action lawsuit by over 100 former NHL players against the league for negligence relating to concussions is currently being waged in court. Overall, it’s safe to say that the impact of concussions in the National Hockey League is a popular issue these days.

…But for a while, I just couldn’t get started. The biggest problem? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, and in some ways I’m still not. The closest to a thesis I could get was something like, “Concussions, man. They really suck.”

What makes it more complicated is that, while my family will never know for sure, it’s highly likely that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of concussions sustained over years of playing middle and high school football contributed to the loss of one of my own family members.

So, I’m a little bit sensitive to the issue, but beyond that, I’m arguably part of a generation of hockey fans that has little sentimentality for the grittiness the sport. The rate of fights in the NHL has dropped drastically over the years, likely because the hockey audience is growing and the league has tried to crack down on what younger, newer fans may see as excessive violence. Few are arguing for a return to the so-called “glory days” of less-skilled enforcers earning a spot on the roster (though, often the few are given time with major media outlets to make their disappointment known — here’s looking at you, Don Cherry). As such, the occurrence of major injuries, and especially those which are career-ending, has fallen as well. Based on my experience engaging with others online, the hockey fan community seems to have come to the consensus that A: repeated head injuries are dangerous, and B: there are ways in which the NHL has been known to encourage the kind of reckless play that can lead to these types of injuries.

Imagine my surprise when I’d read in a USA Today report that the NHL would not be contributing any funds toward concussion research due to skepticism that a link between professional hockey and CTE exists at all.

The magazine’s report excerpts a portion of a letter written by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has questioned the link between the league and head trauma. “As you are likely aware, the most recent Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport concluded that, ‘The speculation that repeated concussions or sub-concussive impacts causes CTE remains unproven,’” he wrote in October 2016. “Likewise, the ‘2015 Consensus Document’ you cite itself highlights that there are many ‘gaps’ in the CTE research.”

Further nonsense, excerpted from court documents from the class-action lawsuit pending against the NHL.

This is reckless, stupid and just plain cruel. If serious enough, concussions often aren’t just career-ending — they can ultimately be life-ending, often contributing to players’ early deaths.

Unlike the NHL, the National Football League (NFL) has contributed approximately $100 million toward concussion research. However, the league has also been the subject of a $1 billion lawsuit by former players who alleged that NFL officials didn’t disclose the known risks of repeated head trauma caused by concussions, and as a result the NFL admitted, albeit grudgingly, that a link between sports and head trauma does indeed exist.

If I’m being honest, I appreciated Aaron Gordon’s piece for Vice Sports regarding the NHL’s decision not to fund head trauma research. Essentially, his argument is that it’s probable that funding toward this issue that is given from industries like professional sports could influence the outcomes of the research, whether intentionally or not, and that by distancing itself from concussion research, the NHL may unknowingly contribute to clearer and more accurate findings by the scientific community. However, it remains clear that concussion research, and likely sports science research as a whole, is still underfunded and needs to be expanded in order to ensure the safety of our athletes; perhaps doing so will help close some of the “gaps” that Bettman cites as a reason to distance the league from the devastating impact of CTE.

Of course, it isn’t just the national league where concussions are impacting lives. A recent study from Boston University found that four former hockey players, all of whom committed suicide before the age of 30, were posthumously diagnosed with CTE by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee. Though their identities remain protected, none had ever advanced past their respective junior league teams to play in the NHL, meaning that this isn’t just a major league problem. (Though, it’s worth mentioning that Dr. McKee has also examined the brains of five former NHL players who showed symptoms of CTE, and all five were ultimately diagnosed with the condition.)

Ultimately one of the biggest factors in my decision to write this piece is seeing so many exceptionally talented athletes sidelined for deeply saddening amounts of time as a result of head trauma symptoms. Most obviously is Sidney Crosby, who I deeply admire in particular for his commitment to ensuring that he heals properly (which is documented in this 2011 feature for Maclean’s by Cathy Gulli) whenever he’s forced to deal with the particular injury that has cost him (by my count) 114 games during what many would argue is the peak of his career. “Concussions are still kind of a mysterious thing,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2013. “We do know a lot more now, but there are still things that we can learn and hopefully ways and methods we can learn to either heal or to find out more about the actual extent of the injuries.”

Moreover, Crosby consistently maintained a positive attitude while battling concussion after concussion. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe once wrote about a conversation he’d had with the Penguins forward:

“He said the single most interesting thing I’ve ever heard a hockey player say. I didn’t tape record it and never used it in an article. But Crosby compared himself to a horse. No, really. He explained that, some horses are injured when they’re young and actually have their best legs later in life. Crosby then suggested that his prime could come in his late 20s or even past 30, while most great players — Gretzky, Lemieux, and Orr are classic examples — clearly peak between the ages of 22 and 28. It’s important to stay tuned, of course. Horse races get better the longer they go.”

[Author’s note: while writing this, at approximately 1:30pm on May 2nd, he was diagnosed with yet another concussion — his third on record. Fantastic. Make that 115 games.]

Earlier today, Crosby was diagnosed with his third recorded concussion; teammate Conor Sheary was also concussed in last night’s game.

There’s also Amanda Kessel, who one might naively think would be less likely to encounter a concussion with such severity while playing women’s hockey, where supposedly bodychecking isn’t permitted. In 2014, as part of Team USA Kessel won a silver medal at the winter Olympics in Sochi, but suffered a concussion in a team practice that only started exhibiting symptoms months later. “I never smiled, I hardly laughed,” she told Kristina Rutherford in a SportsNet feature earlier this year. “Friends could tell I just wasn’t there, I wasn’t myself at all.” She struggled with headaches, nausea, and a sensitivity to light for nearly two years before making a brief return to the University of Minnesota and joining the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).

There are also the countless NHL athletes featured, including the ten featured on this list, whose careers were ended by concussions.

Lastly, I want to name Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert, Steve Montador, and Derek Boogaard, who are all former NHL players who were all found to have been living with CTE after their deaths. Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, who both passed away in 2011 several months after Boogaard, as well as Mark Svatos are also thought to have struggled with mental health issues exacerbated by head trauma. Their names deserve space here. These men have lost their lives as a result of everything they gave to this league, and it’s shocking and disappointing that the NHL has allowed this problem to amass into what it’s become.

So, what can be done about it? Can anything be done about it?

The NHL’s most recent effort has been the introduction of a team of “spotters,” who fall under the Department of Player Safety and monitor all games from the league’s New York department headquarters. The spotters are trained to recognize symptoms of head trauma in athletes who have been hit in the head and have the authority to mandate that any player who is exhibiting symptoms be removed from the ice to be examined. In-area spotters as well as on-ice officials were instructed to support these measures.

Interestingly, some NHL players including Patrick Maroon and Mike Smith have objected to the stricter protocol. While the latter thinks the protocol can be manipulated to force goalies to leave the game when they aren’t concussed, giving an advantage to the other team, the former claims that the sport is “a man’s game” and that taking major hits is “a part of hockey.” I don’t want to call these attitudes recklessly ignorant, but, if the skate fits…

While it’s unclear yet whether the presence of the spotters has reduced the length of time that a concussion may affect a player as a result of not receiving immediate medical treatment, it’s unlikely that it will reduce the quantity of concussions as it doesn’t address the key factor in sustaining the injury: the hits.

Earlier attempts were made to address hits to the head. In 2010, Rule 48.1 was added to the NHL rulebook in 2011. It read, “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.” It was later clarified in 2013: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable [is not permitted].” Sure, fine. Hits to the head should be punished under these rules.

However, a study published two years later indicated that this rule hadn’t done much to stop the propensity of head trauma in NHL players. Why is this? According to the study, only 28% of situations that resulted in concussions drew a penalty at all. Of that 28%, only 4% of the penalties were relating to Rule 48.1; the majority were related to fighting, and if I had to guess, boarding also likely took up a significant portion. Of the 72% of incidences that caused concussions that weren’t penalized, it’s possible that some penalties were waived off, but it’s more likely that there just wasn’t an intent to injure on the behalf of the player who delivered the blow — and of course, sometimes concussions are triggered by regular trips, slips and falls, and nothing can really be blamed but gravity and fluid mobility.

So, could we maybe improve the gear? Improve players’ helmets, perhaps? Well, just ask Deadspin — they don’t stop concussions.

One last possibility to try to curb concussions would be to penalize players who have inflicted head trauma by outcome rather than intent, which is an argument that’s become popular amongst a small group hockey writers and fans. The recent incident in which Sidney Crosby slashed Ottawa Senators defenseman Marc Methot’s finger and caused a serious gash prompted many to bring up the idea. “It’s kind of a misplay,” said Senators captain Erik Karlsson after the game. “[Crosby] puts his stick in [Methot’s] hand as he’s trying to shoot the puck in and, unfortunately, it hits his finger. It turns out, worse-case scenario. Plays like that happen all the time. But no, I don’t think it was intentional or dirty.” Many in the hockey world wanted Crosby’s head, including the team’s owner Eugene Melnyk, but at worst the situation warranted a minor slashing penalty. If Crosby were to receive a more severe punishment, you’d have to punish him based on the outcome of the exchange rather than the intent to injure.

But you can go ahead and take that to the NHL players’ association and get back to me, tell me how it goes down. (I’ll see you after the lockout.)

There are most certainly players like Maroon who probably have a certain amount of pride in their resilience in the face of routine injuries. Also, for what it’s worth, the NHL’s demonstrated culture of remaining very tight-lipped about injuries guarantees that even if a concussion was diagnosed quickly enough to warrant a penalty during the game, we’d never know about it.

Before gutting their hockey coverage in the middle of playoffs last week (still a sore spot), ESPN published a piece that quite literally glamorizes the battle scars worn by NHL players. Admittedly the aesthetics are cool, but being hyped about potential lifelong effects of sports injuries? Yikes — talk about tone deaf.

Full disclosure — at this point I’m pretty much out of ideas. Disappointingly, I haven’t been able to solve the problem of concussions in the NHL. (Shocking, right?)

Nevertheless, reaching the end of this piece and still not being sure if I’ve manage to put into words everything that I’ve thought about this issue is frustrating. Whether it’s the supposed lack of conclusive head trauma research, the subsequent denial of said research, the cultural remnants of a bygone era of a hockey league that favored grit over skill or the way one bad hit has the potential to end an entire career and just be waved off — it’s all disappointing, and no one really knows how we can address the problem in a way that best helps NHL athletes.

I’ll finish with this: you can’t solve the problem of concussions in the NHL in a day, or even a season, but it’s crucial that the league will admit that this is a problem and commit to finding an effective way of fighting it. Even though they understand the risks, our athletes deserve to play in a league that takes action when concerns about traumatic brain injuries are raised.

…Concussions, man. They really suck.