NHL playing head games

Eric Tangradi of the Pittsburgh Penguins lays on the ice after taking a hit to the head from Trevor Gillies of the New York Islanders.

The beginning of the end of the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins season may be traced to the night of Jan. 1.

It was the end of the second period of the Winter Classic and Sidney Crosby was in the slot. An anonymous Washington Capitals forward named David Steckel sprinted from behind the net and up ice. Crosby had his backed turned and never saw Washington’s left wing. Steckel collided with Crosby, his shoulder slamming into the head of the world’s best player.

Crosby, the tough son-of-a-you-know-what that he is, suited up and was slammed down in the next game against Tampa Bay. The next day, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma announced Crosby had a mild concussion and would miss a week’s worth of time. Crosby has not even practiced with the team since that game.

You think the NFL would let Tom Brady or Peyton Manning get cold-cocked like that?

Such is what separates the NHL from other top sports leagues — it’s not exactly protecting its stars. Rule 48, which prohibits blindside hits to the head, simply isn’t doing enough.

The national sports debate over concussions was rejoined following the sixth week of the NFL season that saw four players leave games after frightful, high speed hits to the head that left them concussed. One player, Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson did not play in the Eagles’ 37-19 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Jackson told reporters that he looks "forward to playing" but admitted the impact was akin to being "in a car accident." The NFL was proactive, immediately implementing penalties for head shots, despite criticism from defensive players such as the Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison.

The NHL, by comparison, was faced with its own concussion crisis during the 2009-10 season. Florida’s David Booth, Boston’s Marc Savard, New Jersey’s Anssi Salmela, Colorado’s Darcy Tucker, Edmonton’s Sheldon Souray and Philadelphia’s Ian Laperriere were among those whose year’s were limited because of concussions. In the cases of the concussion suffered by Booth, Savard and Tucker after hits to the head, the NHL convened a conference to discuss how to punish head shots.

During his media address during the All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, commissioner Gary Bettman said that concussions are on the rise, citing the information and evidence he has received. He also noted that head shots had very little to do with the players’ concussions.   

However, there have been instances of players taking advantage of defenseless opponents as the implementation of Rule 48 has not slowed the epidemic of head shots. Savard, Crosby, Blake Comeau, Eric Tangradi, John Tavares and Jason Pominville are among the very short list of players who have missed time during the 2010-11 season due to head injuries.   

Examples include:

Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson checked Pominville from behind and into the glass at the HSBC Arena. Pominville suffered a concussion and cuts to his face and had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher. Hjalmarsson, a first time offender, was suspended two games very early this season.

Pittsburgh center Max Talbot hit Comeau from behind during the Penguins’ 3-0 win over the Islanders at the Consol Energy Center on Feb. 2.

Nine nights later, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Trevor Gillies responded by elbowing Tangradi in the back of the head in a brawl-filled 9-3 Islanders’ win.  

While the NFL and NHL began to take the moral high ground by finally penalizing illegal head shots, teams and the athletes are still performing a delicate dance as it pertains to bringing a player back after suffering a concussion. This is especially in the NHL.

Before the season, Savard and Laperriere failed conditioning tests administered by their teams and post-concussion symptoms were fingered as the reasons why. Both players told reporters that they should not have returned for their teams playoffs runs.

"It’s such a fine line, even with injuries. There’s pain and then there’s a definite injury. Players are more than willing to play through pain. We don’t want them to play through an injury and make it worse. With a head injury, a player could feel quite good and have a good day, but as soon as he stresses himself, he has a relapse. He has a symptom. You can’t keep those symptoms to yourself. We have open lines of communication with the trainer," Atlanta Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay told
Metro earlier this seasm. Ramsay was an assistant coach with the Bruins last year and saw Savard return to the team before he had fully recovered from his concussion.

"He appeared fine. He scored in his first game back. He looked like he was maybe not in the best of physical condition but mentally he seemed fine. That was the difference for us. We thought the physical conditioning wasn’t there in the last round with Philadelphia. Mentally, he seemed alert. He seemed fine. So everybody felt comfortable with him coming back and playing." Ramsay added that there is "always" a concern that a player may lie to him-or-herself, the organization and medical personnel in order to return.

Unfortunately for Ramsay and  the Thrashers organization, both have experienced players suffering a frightening on-ice injury as No. 1 goaltender Ondrej Pavelec collapsed onto the ice during a first period stoppage of play in the season opening 4-2 win over Washington at the Phillips Arena. Medical personnel tended to Pavelec on the ice before he was taken to a local medical center where he was diagnosed as having a fainting spell, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Trashers defenseman Freddy Meyer fell to the ice during Atlanta’s 4-2 loss to Calgary on Feb. 2 after bumping into Tim Jackman and Curtis Glencross. The newspaper reported that the team fears Meyer may have suffered a concussion and placed him on injured reserve, although Meyer reported that he did not experience headache symptoms.  

"It was a scary thing, a guy going down like that. You don’t know what’s going on at first. Thank God now everything worked out well. At first it’s scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You hope for the best but you really don’t know. I think everybody was shocked at first," Johnny Oduya said about Pavelec’s collapse. The defenseman added the organization gave Pavelec’s teammates updates on the goaltender’s condition "every now and then" and deemed the informational flow as "good."

Pavelec returned to play for Atlanta on Oct. 30 and has been among the reasons that the Thrashers are in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Pavelec is 18-15-8 with a 2.58 GAA and .922 save percentage this season, and is on the short list of goaltenders contending for the Vezina Trophy.   

"He’s a great goalie. We obviously saw him play last year. He’s a young guy and he has huge potential. He’s a star goalie in this league," Oduya said.

In Oduya’s final two sentences lay the uncomfortable question organizations and players must ask. Winning is important but how important is it when factored against an athlete’s short and long term quality of life? Athletes want to compete, and jobs–playing, coaching, management–are at a premium.

"One of the worst things about coaches in all sports is when you become a coach, you almost become a fully qualified doctor, and make decisions about players-or try to. I don’t want to. I don’t expect to. That is the trainer’s job. That is the doctor’s job. When they come to me and say ‘A player’s ready to play’ then I coach him. But up until then, I made up a saying: I coach whoever shows up," Ramsay said. "I don’t try to make them play. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. When a player is ready and the trainers have agreed, then we’ll put him in the lineup. But we’re not going to force a player back, no matter what the injury is."

Meanwhile a debate rages in the National Hockey League, one that seems to have no immediate answer.


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