NHL teams playing concussion deception games

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On Friday afternoon, it was revealed that Chris Pronger was going to be paying a visit to Drs. Joe Maroon and Mickey Collins, what for that concussion-like thing he's been experiencing. It was, in a curiously roundabout way, a tacit admission that the Philadelphia Flyers' defenseman is suffering from, y'know, a concussion.

After missing a handful of games with a suspicious, "concussion-y" virus, the announcement raised some questions: Did these latest symptoms only recently manifest themselves, or is it possible that the Flyers have known for quite some time that Chris Pronger is concussed, and only just recently stopped trying to hide it?

I'm aiming towards the latter, especially since, as Broad Street Hockey notes, the Flyers are rarely forthcoming when it comes to injuries. Additionally, it seems to be in keeping with a recent theme in the NHL this season when it comes to concussion disclosure, which is: Don't do it unless you have to.

It's not a new thing for teams to play coy with injuries. Every year, around playoff time, shoulder strains become upper-body injuries, pulled groins become lower-body injuries, and pretty much everything else becomes the flu.

But this season feels different. It's not just that the vague disclosures have begun months earlier than they normally do — it's that teams seem especially reticent when it comes to the word "concussion".


The Flyers wouldn't be the first team this season to tiptoe around a player's brain trauma. Earlier this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs played 20 questions with the media regarding James Reimer's concussion-ishlike problem. From the Globe and Mail:

It is still not clear if Reimer has a concussion or neck injury. The Leafs said initially Reimer suffered whiplash when he was sideswiped by Montreal Canadiens forward Brian Gionta. Then, after Reimer's replacement, Jonas Gustavsson, indicated Reimer had a concussion, Leafs general manager Brian Burke denied this was the case but said he was being treated "for concussion-like symptoms."

How silly is that? You know what concussion-like symptoms are often symptoms of? A concussion. But the Leafs simply weren't willing to go there. Frankly, I think their caginess regarding James Reimer's injury was more egregious than their caginess regarding his return date, but that's just me.

Meanwhile, Marc Staal is still yet to return from a concussion that the New York Rangers were very slow to announce. After suffering a hit from his brother, Eric, late last February, Staal missed time with concussion symptoms as early as March. And yet the concussion wasn't disclosed until September. From the New York Times:

The Rangers adhered to N.H.L. policy last season when they did not disclose that Staal had developed concussion symptoms after the hit. Staal also injured a knee on a separate hit in that game, and that was the reason given when he missed the next three games. He missed two more games in mid-March, an absence that the Rangers revealed in September to have been caused by postconcussion symptoms. During that time, Staal also did not say he had concussion symptoms.

Under the N.H.L.'s injury-disclosure policy, clubs may not lie about players' injuries, but they are not obligated to volunteer specifics. "You guys didn't ask, so I didn't give you the information," Tortorella said in September when asked why the Rangers did not disclose Staal's concussion.

If Staal had been ready to play when the 2011-12 season started, would the Rangers have ever disclosed the problem? Probably not.

As the New York Times article notes, teams aren't allowed to lie about player injuries, but when it comes to concussions, the uptick in deception, inveiglement, and obfuscation is reaching X-Files levels. Why?

It makes some sense. Media interest in concussions has never been higher, especially when it comes to afflicted superstars, and the intense scrutiny surrounding Sidney Crosby's concussion was hardly enviable.

Towards the end, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave in to incessant demand for information and held a press conference, but it's hard to imagine other teams wishing for the kind of distraction the new concussion circus can pose, both for the recovering player and the rest of the team.

Worse, the moment a player has a concussion, a large part of the story immediately becomes how they handle it. Can you imagine another team allowing a player to return from a concussion while still experiencing symptoms, as Dave Bolland (and, arguably, Brent Seabrook) did last postseason? They'd get roasted.

Despite what we know about concussions, these are risks teams are still willing to take, and it would be a whole lot easier to pull that off without public outrage if the public simply didn't know. So they buy time and space and smother media interest as much as they can.

Three concerns: First, injury disclosure in the NHL is already infuriatingly vague. Do we really want a scenario where it gets worse?

Second, this trend is only going to lead to more and more drastic invasions of privacy as media members attempt to sidestep the misdirection. Safe to assume Mrs. Reimer won't be the last mother called about her son's suspected concussion.

And third, it shirks accountability and allows teams and players to continue to be reckless about the health of their players' brains. Suffice it to say, this is the largest concern of all.

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