By Stu Hackel
The news on Tuesday was not good: Three more NHLers, all important players on their clubs, were diagnosed with concussions or concussion symptoms.
According to the figures provided to Red Light by Dustin Fink, whose The Concussion Blog tracks head injuries and news of concussions in many professional and amateur sports, 61 NHL players had suffered concussions as of the holiday break in the schedule. Compare that total with the 44 last season during an even longer period: through January 3.
If you add the three most recent victims -- Predators star defenseman Shea Weber, Kings leftwinger Simon Gagne and Maple Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles -- to Fink's 61, that makes 64 concussed NHLers so far in the 2011-12 campaign, roughly a 45 percent increase over last season around this time.
(To be fair, the numbers assembled by Fink, who is an athletic trainer in Illinois, might differ from the NHL's as he employs a broader standard for defining concussions, including fractures to facial bones -- excluding the nose -- for which he says "the forces absorbed during the injury will be beyond a threshold to elicit a concussive episode." He also includes episodes reported as “jaw injury,” “head contusion” or “concussion-like symptoms” in his figures.)
Quite alarmingly, Fink lists 28 concussions in the month of December and that does not include the three latest. That means the NHL has averaged more than one concussion per day this month.
This current run of head injuries has to have the league office highly concerned. The folks over there were justifiably proud early in the season that concussions had declined through the first month of play. Since then, however, the sharp increase has this season's figures well ahead of last season's, despite efforts by the league to crack down on dangerous play and create a safer rink environment.
While most of the public focus on concussions centers on those suffered due to illegal contact and fighting, the real picture is more complicated. As we mentioned when we wrote earlier this month about the spike in head trauma, many were the result of accidental collisions or body checks that are permissible under the rules.
These three recent episodes all occurred on plays that don't violate the rules. Weber was concussed by this big hit from Dallas' Mark Fistric last Friday:
Fistric was fresh off a three-game suspension for what the league's Department of Player Safety deemed an illegal hit on Nino Niederreiter that concussed the Islanders' forward earlier this month (video). Weber didn't feel any immediate after-effects and played the rest of the game. He was also fine on the plane ride back to Nashville. But when he got on the ice for practice on Monday, reports Josh Cooper blogging for The Tennessean, Weber didn't feel right. Coach Barry Trotz hopes Weber will be back in the lineup at the end of this week, but with concussions, you never know.
Gagne's injury is not as obvious. It has been reported that he may have been concussed by a hit at the end of the first period of Monday night's game against the Coyotes. With a few seconds remaining, he skated with the puck below the goal line along the boards in his own end. He stopped short of going behind the net and tried to cut back into the corner, but Radim Vrbata took him into the boards with a check on the shoulder, a legal hit. It wasn't clear if Gagne's head hit the wall as he fell to his knees after the contact, although he was not apparently injured. He skated off at the buzzer and played a handful of shifts in the second period but didn't return for the third.
The hit doesn't seem particularly devastating, but Gagne has suffered at least two previous concussions, one in 2003, the other in 2007 that sidelined him for a big chunk of the '07-'08 season. He also missed three games while with Tampa Bay during last spring's playoffs after hitting his head on the ice after taking a bodycheck delivered by the Capitals' Scott Hannan (video). His condition was described as a "head injury" and no concussion was ever officially announced. As is now widely known, a history of concussions can make a player more prone to others from less forceful blows. Gagne could be headed for the Injured Reserve List.
Liles was injured by Buffalo's Paul Gaustad on this legal hit last Thursday:
He left the game to be evaluated and subsequently returned, but did not play the next night against the Islanders due to what the Leafs called a stiff neck. On Tuesday, Toronto put him on Injured Reserve for what was called “concussion-like symptoms.”
The owners are certainly paying attention. The many star players currently concussed -- Weber, Gagne, Liles, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Skinner, Chris Pronger, Marc Staal, Marc Savard, Jeff Skinner -- represent annual salaries of nearly $48 million. And that's only the stars. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 NHLers are currently out with concussions.
The league has much to consider. All three of these players continued playing after the blows that seem to have concussed them. Are the protocols in place good enough? None of the hits were against the rules. Are the rules sufficiently strong? They're continuing to look at softer shoulder and elbow pads, discussing whether the speed of the game should somehow be regulated by rule changes, and evaluating research on where, how and when concussion episodes take place in order to get a better handle on the issue. When it comes to deliberate contact, they'll have to ponder even harsher suspensions and weigh making the rules stronger -- the "zero-tolerance" option.
Last week on TSN, veteran commentator Dave Hodge called the NHL's ongoing concussion problem the most critical issue facing the league in its history. He's not overstating things. The challenge is curbing this problem without excessively tampering with two of the sport's essential characteristics that make it so appealing -- speed and physicality.
What the NHL does to resolve the concussion problem, how it balances its current product with the needs for a safer game, could have a lasting impact on hockey's viability as a major professional spectator sport.