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The League isn't Doing Nearly Enough to Prevent Concussions

The NHL needs to do more in the battle against concussions. Too many men are dying both during and after their playing careers. It's long past time for the league to get more serious about concussions in hockey.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When the human head hits the playing surface of an NHL rink it hits 3/4ths of an inch of ice that sits atop a concrete slab. We most frequently see heads hit the ice during hockey fights, which is why the league decided to outlaw the intentional removal of one's own helmet before or during a fight before the 2013-14 season. This rule was one of the NHL's more recent attempts to limit the amount of concussions we see during a hockey season.

Of course, not every hockey fight results in a players head slamming down to the ice surface. However, as we have all learned at a tremendous cost, a head hitting the ice surface isn't the only way to incur a brain injury while playing hockey. We were all reminded of this fact in the most terrifying way during the 2015 playoffs when a puck hit Mats Zuccarello on the side of the head. Due to the speed, contact, equipment, and playing surface, there are perhaps more ways to sustain a concussion while playing hockey than in any other major sport. This is a byproduct of the nature of the game itself, and it has serious medical consequences for players in their immediate and distant lives.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that used to be known as dementia pugilistica because of the frequency with which it appeared in the brains of boxers. CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem, and it was found in the brains of Bob Probert, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Steve Montador after their autopsies.

Montador, who was an exceptionally beloved and influential veteran with the NHLPA, was forced into retirement after a concussion he suffered during the 2011-12 season. He was just 35 years old at the time of his death in 2015, a mere three years later. Montador had joined the class action lawsuit against the NHL just a month before his passing, and now his family is pursuing his claim on behalf of his estate. His family, like so many other former players and their families, firmly believes that the concussions that Steve Montador endured playing hockey, especially in the NHL, contributed to, or possibly even caused, his premature death. The league released the following statement in the wake of his death and the controversy surrounding it.

"The NHL family shares in the sorrow of one of our own losing his life prematurely, and our thoughts, condolences and prayers remain with Steve's family and friends. However, we do not agree that the reports and allegations made today establish any link between Steve's death and his NHL career."

-The NHL's statement after Steve Montador's death

In the midst of the public outrage at the league's tone-deaf and despicable handling of the Patrick Kane rape allegations, yet another former player passed away well before his time because of suicide, substance abuse, and/or CTE. About a week and a half ago Todd Ewen, a former enforcer, passed away of what has been classified as a suicide by police after struggling with depression for many years.

The players are a part of the problem and they always will be.

Far too many young men have died prematurely because of the lack of accessible and reliable knowledge about brain trauma. The culture of fighting that endures in the sport propagates and perpetuates a willingness of young men to engage in bare-knuckle boxing matches while wearing ice skates to play the sport they love at the highest level they are capable of achieving. The players are a part of the problem and they always will be.

Unnecessary, indefensibly dangerous, and still a staple of the game.

"It's easy to say ‘he's a fighter, and he committed suicide and it's because he fought and he suffered concussions.' There's people who commit suicide who never did that. You have to be in a really, really bad place to commit suicide."

-Paul Bissonnette

There is truly only one target in a hockey fight: the head. The fact that this spectacle remains as something that is tolerated and encouraged in a game that has serious concussion issues is irresponsible and idiotic.

The defense of fighting in hockey, frankly, is not a particularly sophisticated and logical argument. It is an emotional argument. Words like tradition, culture, and purity are used to justify the only team sport where at any moment a fist fight can break out that may result in blood being spilled and a player suffering a concussion as a result of repeated and sudden trauma to the head. Hockey fights are not nearly as technical as what we see in the world of professional combat sports. There is truly only one target in a hockey fight: the head. The fact that this spectacle remains as something that is tolerated and encouraged in a game that has serious concussion issues is irresponsible and idiotic.

There's no escaping the fact that we don't know nearly enough about brain trauma. A prime example of this is the fact that we cannot diagnose CTE in someone who is living with the condition. However, we do know enough to acknowledge that as long as there is ice hockey there will be concussions. There is no way around this inconvenient truth. The speed and violence with which hockey is played might not have been intended to be a recipe for creating concussions, but it produces them at an alarming and altogether unacceptable rate. This is the same reason why you can't enter any serious conversation about the concussion problem in hockey without talking about hitting.

Players need to show greater respect for one another on the ice.

The problem inherent with this is that it has become far too easy to grow numb to the issue of concussions in hockey and to accept them as a necessary evil or a nasty byproduct of the game that we all love. It is easy to grow numb to it because there are no easy answers or solutions, but that does not change the fact there is a serious problem and people are dying because of it.

The group of former NHL players looking to sue the NHL have hit a brick wall in their pursuit to duplicate the success that ex-players of the NFL had when they agreed to the $765 million settlement with the NFL in their concussion suit.

"From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other. I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion."

-Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman can make this bold claim because the research to tie hockey-related concussions to the health issues that players are facing just isn't substantial enough yet. Former players and estates of deceased players that are seeking reparations from the league also face the obstacle of proving the impossible. They have to prove that the injuries that have impacted their lives occurred exclusively during their time playing in the NHL, and that those concussions cause the health conditions that have reduced the quality of their lives and the lives of their families. The accusation is that, "the NHL did not inform its players during the study (the NHL Concussion Program) that they might be at any increased risks for concussions." They're fighting an uphill battle and, whether it is the intention of the league or not, the best defense against the suit is to minimize the significance of concussions and point to the lack of substantial and consistent claims by scientists and researchers that concussions suffered while playing ice hockey in the NHL can and do cause CTE, substance abuse, an increased risk of suicide, and a litany of other health problems.

It will be a long, draining, emotional, and costly fight for those former players and their families. They are pursuing post-career care and financial support that they all deserve and earned the hard way playing one of the most dangerous sports in the world. It's uncomfortable to address the fact that the players who have passed away and are currently seeking a financial reward from the league were part of the problem, but that doesn't change the fact that league's approach to the prevention and education about concussions was found wanting while they played the game.

Although Gary Bettman has made it a point to make his critics know that the NHL pioneered concussion protocols back in 1997 with baseline testing and the return-to-play initiative, he has been at the helm while the NHL has fallen behind the NFL's critical yet simple innovation in managing concussions. The bottom line is that the NHL has not and is not doing enough to protect players from concussions. Those of you who follow football might now about something that is colloquially known as the "Julian Edelman Rule".

The NFL has an independent spotter watching every play of every game that now has the power and authority to stop a game and have the officials call an injury time out to remove a player that is suspected of having suffered a concussion or a brain injury from the game. This season the NHL is introducing a dedicated spotter for each team that will have contact with the trainer on each team's bench. The problem here is that each team has the right to appoint it's own spotters, which is a profoundly bad idea. The league will also have two spotters in each arena outside of the team-appointed spotters to keep an eye out for concussions. However, unlike in the NFL, the decision on whether or not to pull a player from the game to undergo concussion testing remains solely with the trainer and the head coach of that player's team. In other words, the system is a bastardized version of the NFL's spotter initiative.

Not only is the NHL's implementation of an independent spotter for concussions inadequate, it is also a reactive action instead of a proactive one. It is encouraging to see the NHL trying to adopt a good idea from outside of the world of hockey in the effort to reduce concussions, but maddeningly disappointing to see the league choose a system that is exposed to bias and does not take concussions nearly as seriously as they need to be taken. It's also troubling to see the NHL not take more steps towards reducing, researching, and treating concussions. What we should want to see from the league is innovation and new approaches to preventing and understanding concussions that will do more to keep hockey players healthy both during and after their playing careers.

The National Hockey League has a deficit in the concern it has shown for the health and safety of its players both on and off the ice. Although there are some signs that concussion numbers are on the decline which Gary Bettman considers to be a significant victory, we're not going to see a significant drop in the number of concussions until the league embraces novel and thoughtful innovation like the NFL's independent spotter protocol and shows greater vigilance in the effort to limit needless brain injuries like the ones we see caused by fights and dangerous hockey hits. It's important to note that independent spotters will not prevent concussions, but they will help identify concussions to ensure that players get the treatment they need and deserve as quickly as possible.

It would be irresponsible to put all of the weight of this issue on the league alone, the men who are on the ice are a huge part of the problem and their attitudes need to start changing. Fighting and big, reckless hits are things that put butts into seats in arenas around the league so, as consumers of the sport, it is also on us to make it clear that we prioritize the well-being of the players on the ice over seeing savage body checks and fights. How harsh should fines and suspensions be for dirty and illegal hits? As harsh as they need to be until we see players showing more respect for another and see less headlines about CTE, suicide, and lives devastated by post concussion syndrome. As far as I'm concerned, the suspensions need to be increased by a significant amount until we start seeing a dramatic drop in head hits and things that are akin to assault in hockey arenas throughout the league.

There is no easy solution to this problem and the troubleshooting process will make a lot of hockey fans unhappy because hockey without board-rattling body checks and/or spontaneous scraps is not a brand of hockey that some will consider is worth watching. Obviously, the league has taken some steps in the right direction over the past few years. It is our responsibility as fans to make it known that greater steps can and ought to be taken, and those steps need to be in the right direction. The NHL's approach to a spotter program is a lateral step that is unlikely to change how things are done in regards to identifying and treating concussions in the league. How many more players need to die before they are 50 years old before we start to demand that common sense overrules tradition and spectacle?

The math and research for concussions leaves a lot to be desired and waiting for science to give us the answers we all crave requires a great deal of patience on our part, but there is one number that I'm already certain about. I don't need to read one more headline about a hockey player taking their own life because of concussion-related depression and other health issues attributed to brain injuries sustained while playing hockey to know that more has to be done by the league and its players to create and promote a safer game. As fans we need to demand more because the players deserve more both during and after their careers.


If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255.

Your call will be free and confidential.

You are not alone.

Thanks for reading.