NHL concussion epidemic: Getting better or remaining a crisis for player safety?

Gary Bettman never said it was a cure-all.

There really isn’t one in sport built on physicality, velocity and bodily sacrifice. When the NHL (finally) introduced rules that targeted hits to the head, and their aftermath, Bettman simply wanted to see the tide turn in the League’s seemingly epidemic struggle with concussions and related head injuries.

So after Rule 48 was established and the Department of Player Safety was overhauled – Brendan Shanahan, video education and the like – Bettman reported that there were “’modest” gains in that struggle. Via Eye on Hockey from 2012:

He also -- once again -- talked about the job Brendan Shanahan has done with the department of player safety, pointing to a decreased level of concussions around the NHL "despite even more aggressive diagnosis and more conservative treatment." He would not give a number as to how many concussions there were, or how much they declined, but he called a "modest decline" and announced it's the first time in three years that's happened.

In response to that, NHL player agent Allan Walsh pointed out on Twitter that there were still over 100 concussions in the league this season, a figure that represents over 14 percent of the players.

So yes, there’s a still a problem. But how severe?

Dr. Michael Cusimano of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto compared concussion rates before and after the NHL made rules to target head shots. And he found that the League hasn’t made great gains in the fight.

From the Canadian Press:

"The rate of concussion did not decrease," Cusimano said in an interview. "It in fact increased the first year and in the second year in the NHL it stayed stable. So we didn't see a decline like I think everyone had hoped, including the NHL, who said brought in primarily for player safety."

His findings?

Writing in Wednesday's issue of the medical journal PLoS One, the researchers said 64 per cent of NHL concussions were caused by bodychecking. About 28 per cent of concussions, and 28 per cent of suspected concussions, were caused by illegal incidents where the aggressor was given a penalty, fine or suspension.

"We conclude that rules regulating bodychecking to the head did not reduce the number of players suffering concussions during the NHL regular season and that further changes or stricter enforcement of existing rules may be required to minimize the risk of players suffering these injuries," the study's authors concluded.

Also, via TSN:

The data showed that there was no statistical significance in the incidence of concussions in the NHL in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons compared to the 2009-10 season. That latter was the year before the NHL rule change went into effect.

The researchers estimated there were about 5.23 concussions per 100 games in the NHL regular season. Despite its stiffer rule, the OHL didn't have markedly different concussion rates, clocking 5.05 per 100 games in the regular season.

Three reactions:

1. We often wonder how they tabulate concussion data. Because there’s no question that public disclosure of head injuries continues to be more candid than it was even three years ago. Hence, it’s hard to successfully establish their numbers from previous seasons if you’re going on public admissions and diagnoses.

2. You’d have to be sight impaired or have not watched hockey in two years not to see changes in the culture of hitting in the NHL. The sort of catastrophic hits that would leave a player motionless until a stretcher was wheeled out are far less prevalent today. Players are getting it. Well, most of them are.

3. Whenever a critic establishes data on the NHL’s concussion problem, the next question is about solutions. Here’s what Cusimano’s crew would like to see:

• A ban on fighting.

• Harsher penalties for those teams and players who inflict concussions.

• Altering equipment.

• Changes to ice size and rink environment.

The first one isn’t going to happen barring catastrophe, and it’s always been considered separate from the concussions suffered on hits because it’s a voluntary bout.

The third and fourth options have been implemented, or are going considered. But about that second option …

From TSN:

If the player who sidelined Pittsburgh Penguin captain Sidney Crosby for a year was forced to spend as much time off the ice for the injury, the culture of teams might start to change, Cusimano suggested.

"If there were more severe consequences to those who inflict that kind of injury -- let's say that player was out for an equal amount of time as Crosby -- that might have more impact," he said.

The “eye for an eye” approach to injuries suggests an ignorance of the game. Yes, that tactic would grab the attention of players and likely could be a deterrent. But did David Steckel’s hit on Sidney Crosby call for him to miss 102 games? Should Joe Thornton have been in street clothes as long as David Perron was after the pick play resulted in a concussion?

Again, the NHL’s steps on concussions are in the right direction, although perilously too late. The League and Bettman deserve all the grief they get about how things ran before Rule 48 and the Department of Player Safety.

For more on that, I’d recommend you read Normand Harvey today on Bettman: “He’s incapable of seeing that the game is much less than it could be, since he has no feel for it, no experience, he didn't grown up with it, watching it or playing it. He thinks because the ratings are rising that things must be okay.”

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