LOS ANGELES — A few years ago, Willie Mitchell could not play in the playoffs. He had a concussion. Noise bothered him. Light bothered him. When he tried to hold a conversation, he couldn’t focus. When he tried to watch his team play without him, it hurt – physically and emotionally. He wanted to heal; he wanted to chase his childhood dream.
He compared the brain to a computer. The more programs running, the more stress on the system. He needed a reboot. So he retreated to the small town in which he grew up – Port McNeill, B.C. – and went outdoors, walking up and down a river, listening to the birds chirp.
“That’s a whole theory thing,” said Mitchell, now 37 years old and playing in the Stanley Cup Final for the Los Angeles Kings. “There’s science on these …”
“I call them brain injuries, because I don’t think ‘concussions’ give it enough identity,” he continued. “But I lived through a pretty good one, and I think disconnecting yourself from all the things that bring you stress and to be able to identify those things that give you stress gets you better in a hurry.”
We’ve heard the horror stories about concussions. We know more than ever before about them, even if the science still has a long way to go to pin down their short- and long-term effects. Yet the players still want to play, especially in the playoffs – even when they are going through the horrors, even though they know the risk, at least on some level.
That’s why the NHL’s concussion protocol is so important, and that’s why commissioner Gary Bettman’s comments were so interesting Wednesday at his annual state-of-the-league news conference. When a player shows signs of a potential concussion, he is supposed to be taken to a quiet area to go through standardized concussion testing. He must pass to return to play. Bettman did not give details but said the league has disciplined teams for violating the protocol – hinting at fines – and is open to strengthening the protocol in the future.
“If we think there’s been a violation, we follow up,” Bettman said. “If in an appropriate case there needs to be disciplined imposed, we will do it. If we think we need to do more – speculation about independent spotters – that’s something we’ll discuss and do if necessary at the time.”
The NHL has made progress. Concussions declined by “moderate to low double-digits as a percentage” this season and man-games lost to concussions declined by “probably about half,” according to Bettman. Thanks to rule changes, the department of player safety's suspension videos and the concussion protocol, the culture has started to change in terms of how the game is played and how both players and teams respect the brain.
But the league still faces serious concussion problems – in perception and reality.
The league looks bad when it won’t give details about discipline for violating protocol and won’t back up its claims about concussion declines with hard data, even if it can’t do so for privacy and legal reasons. At least three concussion lawsuits are pending, claiming the league didn't do enough in the past. Actually, it’s surprising Bettman admitted the league has disciplined teams at all, because while it shows the league is being proactive, it also establishes on the record that someone screwed up.
The league looks worse when we see what we’ve seen in these playoffs – relatively short suspensions for blows to the head, players returning to the ice when they shouldn’t, coaches avoiding the ‘C’ word in public. The department of player safety has not been given the mandate to hand out stiffer suspensions. That’s an issue for another day. But some players have skirted the concussion protocol, and the protocol hasn’t protected some players even when followed. That’s unacceptable.
In Game 3 of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first-round series, Steven Stamkos was kneed in the back of the head accidentally by the Montreal Canadiens’ Alexei Emelin. Stamkos tried to get up. He fell down. He left the game. But he returned, and he played in Game 4 with his team facing elimination.
“If it smells like a concussion, then it’s a concussion,” said neurosurgeon Charles Tator to the National Post afterward. “But they don’t want to make that diagnosis. There is that resistance, because they know that it can take time for the brain to recover.”
In Game 6 of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-round series, James Wisniewski was drilled into the boards by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tanner Glass. He had to be helped to his feet. He left the game. But he returned with his team facing elimination.
“My head didn’t feel great in Game 6,” said Wisniewski to reporters later. “I said my back hurt so I didn’t have to do the 20-minute [concussion] protocol and go through that whole concussion process. I didn’t feel like going in and talking to the doctors for 20 minutes. A lot of guys were playing through things.”
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, the Canadiens’ Dale Weise took a hit to the head from the New York Rangers’ John Moore – a hit that resulted in a two-game suspension. He rose to his feet and wobbled. Teammate P.K. Subban bear-hugged him to keep him from falling. He left the game. But he returned to play 1:44, including most of the final minute.
“You get told to go to the quiet room, and your first thought is, ‘I’ve got to get back out there,’ ” said Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges. “You know? As a player, you do what you can to get back out there.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that in Weise’s case, the concussion protocol was followed correctly. The medical staff identified that Weise wobbled after the hit. Weise was taken to a quiet area. He passed the tests. So he was cleared to return. When he didn’t pass the tests later, he was held out of Game 6, even though the Habs were facing elimination.
“I will tell you that players can be totally asymptomatic at the time of a hit and not evolve symptoms until the next day or maybe three days later,” Daly said. “That’s not an uncommon thing at all with a head injury or a concussion. The fact that people saw he looked a little woozy when he got up and then came back in the game again, leads you to the conclusion … We saw it. It was obvious. But he did go through an evaluation, and obviously passed that evaluation to the satisfaction of his team doctor, and I’m not here to question his team doctor.”
But before Game 6 – when Weise had been taken out of the lineup – Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was asked if there was any regret that Weise had returned to Game 5 given the symptoms. Therrien responded: “What symptom?” He said the reporter was presuming Weise had a head injury and that he was not correct. Therrien called it a “body injury.” It was only after the series that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin revealed publicly that Weise had a concussion.
Though players are being more honest when they don’t feel right and the stigma is starting to fade, this still goes on – especially when the Cup is at stake. The players do have to take some responsibility for themselves. There is a limit to what the teams and the league can do.
“Obviously it’s difficult for us to get into a player’s head, no pun intended with this concussion discussion,” Bettman said. “If a player is not going to follow the protocol, not say exactly what he’s feeling, that’s pretty difficult to address.”
But we know the players lie, and we know the players can pass the test immediately after a hit and suffer symptoms later, and we know coaches are avoiding the ‘C’ word so it can’t be used against them and the door can stay open for a player to return. The NHL has to do a better job of protecting the players from themselves.
The NHL must hold teams accountable for following the current protocol – for legal and moral reasons. “There are a variety of ways, including fining possibilities,” Bettman said. “For us, it’s not a PR stunt. It’s more important we get this working the right way.”
The league and the NHL Players’ Association also must strengthen the current protocol. The return-to-play guidelines need to be more conservative to account for the lying and delayed symptoms. Even if team doctors are of the utmost integrity, have the highest expertise and feel no pressure, independent doctors would eliminate conflict of interest – perceived or real.
As Mitchell emphasized, concussions are brain injuries. They are not the same as other injuries. Mitchell went through two knee surgeries and said he appreciated the chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final when he thought his career might have been over. But you know what helped get him through his knee problems? The perspective he gained from his concussion problems. It took him seven or eight months to recover. He said he got a taste of what it was like to have a terminal illness. He appreciates the chance just to live life.
“Your brain’s everything, right?” said Mitchell, who has said he will donate his brain to science. “You’re asking me a question. Well, you tell your brain to ask me the question, and then you ask me the question. With a knee, it’s a little different. Of course, no one wants knee replacements or stuff like that, but it’s a little different. You can still function as a human being. You just have a bad knee. When you don’t have a brain, you have nothing.”
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