By Stu Hackel
We go into the final weekend before the NHL's regular season with headlines concerned less than ever with who will be the third line winger or sixth defenseman for this team or that and focused more than ever on the big issue of the offseason and preseason: player safety and specifically, brain injuries.
All of us who are fans of the game have seen during the last few years, with increasing frequency, player after player staggering or being assisted or even stretchered off the ice. You may choose to deny or make little of it, or, like an ostrich, bury your head at the mention of it. But to do so is to be blind to reality and to the biggest challenge confronting the game we love -- at least since epidemic brawling pushed the sport further to the margins of acceptance in the US and sparked fierce debate in Canada on the fate of the sport. That sort of moment is upon us once again.
"This is a difficult time for the NHL, for its commissioner, Gary Bettman, and for hockey," writes Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden in a new essay in the online magazine Grantland. "It's no less difficult for the NFL, for its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for the NCAA, and for football. Head injuries have become an overwhelming fact of life in sports. The immensity of the number, the prominence of the names, the life-altering impact on their lives, and, more disturbing, if that's possible, the now sheer routineness of their occurrence...
"What once had seemed debatable, deniable, spin-able, now is not. What once had been ignored now is obvious. Not just contact or collision sports, hockey and football are dangerous sports."
And Dryden's article is just one of several new pieces of content worth absorbing this weekend.
The NHL, with its long history of slow reaction to all sorts of problems, has finally pivoted on the head injuries issue in a dramatic way. With new marching orders from team ownership and management, a revamped Hockey Operations Department, stiffer guidelines for punishing offenders and more clear communication, the game has started down a different path. And it must. The medical evidence is becoming overwhelming and all sport, not just hockey, has reacted to it.
Perhaps you like hockey that other way, with bodies being carted off for your entertainment, and have little regard for the players you cheer. Maybe you consider them disposable objects and prefer not to be bothered by what we now know are the consequences of the brain trauma they can suffer.
Or maybe you are among those who still fear that the new level of discipline against dangerous play (today's suspension of Detroit's Brendan Smith for the remainder of the preseason and five regular season games being the most recent example) will lead to a softer NHL, as some general managers and some in the media (like Tony Gallagher of The Vancouver Province) have argued.
But, as we wrote earlier this week, there is no evidence that has happened or will happen. The game will always need physical players to counteract the more skilled ones. That's the essence of pro hockey: it's skill vs. resistance. The point of the tougher standard against dangerous play is to get some NHL players -- who are, after all, elite athletes capable of adjusting -- to change the way they engage physically, to eliminate contact to the head, not all contact, and relearn how to bodycheck instead of target. That's the point Brendan Shanahan makes in his videos, like this one.
As Dryden writes, "If some rules are changed, players and coaches will find ways to adapt and to gain a competitive advantage, because that's what players and coaches do. They're dreamers and imaginers. They're competitive. They need to win."
Given the speed of the game, it won't be easy for some players, but given the alternative and the stakes, it is necessary. "Where is all this going?" Dryden asks. "Who else? How many more? How bad might this get? Careers and lives of players, we know now, have been shortened, diminished, snuffed out by head injuries."
Dryden continues, "For Bettman, it's time to say: This is a great game, but it has a big problem, one that will only get worse if we don't do what needs to be done now. Our players will not get smaller, they will not skate slower, the force of their collisions will not diminish. The equipment they wear will not improve fast enough to mitigate the greater risks they will face. 'Tweaking' is not the answer.
"Immediately, Bettman can say, we need to treat any hit to the head as what it is: an attempt to injure. A hit to the shoulder, torso, or hip — depending — is understood as good positioning and good defense; not so a hit to the head....The presumption needs to be that every hit to the head is an attempt to injure, with the onus on the player doing the hitting, through his actions and in the eyes of the referee, to defeat that presumption."
Dryden has much more to suggest that in confronting the dangers posed by head contact, including the issue of fighting. (NHL VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan tells CBC's Peter Mansbridge that fighting is indeed up for review in the NHL.) Dryden's story, which uses Sidney Crosby's situation as a jumping-off point, is highly recommended. As Dryden sees it, "The NHL season that begins next week — whether Crosby plays at all, or how well — will be about Crosby."
Another recommended piece is by longtime hockey writer Gare Joyce in the new Sportsnet Magazine. It, too, centers on Crosby and picks up Dryden's thought about the future of the Penguins captain. (Sportsnet also has a long feature on Derek Boogaard by Brett Popplewell you might want to read over the weekend). Joyce wonders if Crosby can ever return to being the player he once was. He raises very important questions on whether the Penguins treated Crosby's initial injury in the Winter Classic adequately, wonders why they didn't perform baseline tests on him and continued to let him play that game and the next, where he was staggered by another check. Joyce speaks to many of the established medical experts who research hockey's head trauma epidemic and raises the truly frightening possibility that Crosby's fate could have been much worse.
"Second impact syndrome: If you suffer a second concussion before you've recovered fully from a first concussion, you can die; it's just that simple," says Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital who has frequently spoken out on hockey's concussion problem. "Some who've survived are wrecked neurologically. It goes beyond persistent post-concussion syndrome as we know it."
Crosby will not return until he is completely healed, as doctors and Penguins GM Ray Shero stated during their early September press conference on the star's status. But the severity of his last concussion, which the Penguins initially described as "mild," makes specialists -- and should make fans -- worry about his future. It's not a question of how tough Crosby is. Joyce presents enough evidence from Sidney's career to dispel any doubts about that. However, the consequences of concussion go beyond a player's mettle, and even suggest that we're going to need a new definition of toughness in hockey, because one thing we should learn from Crosby's situation is that concussed players -- regardless of how rugged they are or how much character they have -- shouldn't be back for the next shift or even the next game as they've previously done.
"Athletes who've suffered a concussion are four to six times more likely to suffer another concussion than an athlete who hasn't had one," Dr. J. Scott Delaney, the team physician for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and an emergency and sports physician at McGill University, tells Joyce. "After three concussions, we start to see symptoms of cognitive impairment, often and most dramatically with balance."
"When Sidney Crosby plays his next NHL game, the Penguins will be complete," writes Joyce, "but there's no knowing if he'll ever be whole, if he'll ever be all the way back, if something has been irretrievably lost. Based on training camp, a full comeback looks possible, but if a 'mild' concussion sidelined him for more than nine months, another one is an awful prospect for the player, the team and the league."
And that's the awful truth.