The defendant in a lawsuit by former players, the NHL would be wise to adopt the NFL’s new concussion procedure that allows officials to stop play in cases of suspected head injury.
The average hockey fan may not recognize the name Julian Edelman, but the NHL should be aware of him. He could help change the way the league deals with dangerous head trauma.
Edelman is the wide receiver for the New England Patriots who appeared dazed after taking a hard helmet-to-helmet hit in this year’s Super Bowl. The NFL, to its credit, had a system in place that should have protected him. The league’s press box-based concussion spotter recognized the potential for brain injury and radioed down to the team that Edelman required evaluation. But with the Patriots in a no-huddle offense, there was no opportunity to get him off the field. He subsequently passed the requisite tests after the offensive series had ended, but the flaw in the system was obvious.
Recognizing the problem, the NFL enacted a new rule last week that empowers concussion spotters to bypass the teams and contact on-field officials directly to call for a stoppage in play. When that happens, players will be forced to sit out at least one play while undergoing a concussion test. Teams will not be charged with a timeout, but time will stop for a medical timeout.
“We don’t expect this to happen a lot, but the [spotter] is now empowered to stop the game if necessary to give the player the attention he needs,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, told the Boston Globe. “Concussions and head and neck injuries are really important and they need immediate attention. Therefore that was going to predominate over any potential competitive concerns.”
It’s a commonsense approach that speaks to the NFL’s commitment to responding immediately to suspected cases of head trauma. Did I also mention that the concussion spotters are not affiliated with teams? They are instead employed by the league and charged solely with ensuring the health and safety of the players.
If only the NHL were as bold.
The NHL’s response to its own concussion issues has been checkered, but there have been progressive moments. Back in 2011, the league instituted what’s become known as the quiet room policy, which requires a player who is suspected of having sustained a head injury to be sent to a location that is free of distractions in order to facilitate the performance of tests by a team physician. Tests include evaluations of motor skills, such as standing on one leg and touching the nose with a forefinger, along with answering such questions as, “Do you know what period the game is in?” Or, “Do you know who hit you?” Based on the results of the tests, doctors can then make a decision on whether or not to allow a player to return to action.
While that was a solid first step—and a lot better than the old smelling salts solution—it’s far from an ideal system. Unless the player is completely incapacitated, odds are he’s going to argue that he’s ready and able to return to the ice to help his team; that’s especially true if the injured player is young and clinging to a spot on the roster, or if he already has a history of injuries. Because the examining physician is employed by the club, there’s the potential for a conflict-of-interest that could influence the decision of whether to allow a player to return to the ice.
It would be nice if the league could employ truly independent medical officials, but the logistics are daunting. It’s one thing to ask a doctor to give up 16 Sundays. It’s something else entirely to require a medical professional to make a commitment of a few days a week for a seven-month season.
But the implementation of eye-in-the-sky concussion spotters would be an honorable step that should be seriously considered. While spotters won’t be noticeable on a nightly basis, it’s easy to think of when they could have had a positive impact. Think back to last season’s playoffs, when the Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford appeared loopy after taking a puck to the mask late in the third period of a game against the Wild. He finished the game, which Chicago won, 4–1, but seemed dazed for several minutes. If he ever was tested for a head injury it was only after the game ... and only after the problem could have been compounded by another shot to the head.
And that’s the key. Concussion diagnosis is not an exact science, but the sooner the injury is detected, the less likely the player is to sustain further damage from a follow-up incident.
That’s why there’s a real opportunity here. With the NHL in the midst of litigation that claims it didn’t do enough to protect players from head trauma, here’s a practical step it can take. It’s not the magic bullet that will eliminate concussions. But it would be a start.
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