6 Ways the NHL Can Address the Rash of Head Injuries
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Professional sports has an obligation to continue to study the impact of head injuries and concussions.
All sports, including hockey, have come a long way from the days when a player would take a shot to the head, get knocked out and then return to action after taking a whiff of smelling salts.
The NHL has a protocol that keeps players off the ice after taking a shot to the head. But injuries like the one pictured that have all but officially ended the career of Boston Bruins star center Marc Savard still occur.
These injuries do more than "knock out" an athlete like Savard or Sidney Crosby. Concussions and concussion-related systems can last for years.
The NHL needs to take stronger steps to prevent concussion-type injuries in order to make the game safer for its players.
Raffi Torres got a substantail penalty for his hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa.
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Players understand severe discipline.
That tool can be one of the best ways to prevent illegal head shots. Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes was hit with a 25-game suspension by NHL dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan after a nasty hit on Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks.
That got Torres' attention and also sent a message to every player in the league.
However, that message may have been obfuscated by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman when he reduced the penalty by four games (source: NBCSports.com).
When a player puts a competitor at risk with a head shot, he must be disciplined severely. There is no place for easing up on the punishment
Players need to be educated on head shots.
Even though players like Savard and Chris Pronger may have seen their career come to an end, players still don't realize the danger.
In the video above, players like Dion Phaneuf and Alex Ovechkin still try to justify the head shot by saying an opponent's head was down or a player turned into the hit.
However, Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning realizes that head shots are simply illegal—accident or not.
"You simply can't hit another player in the head," St. Louis said. "That's the rule."
St. Louis understands the message, but not all players do.
Role of the Enforcer
The dangers of head shots are well known.
The league can limit the size of equipment and issue harsh penalties.
However, if players are allowed to fight and punch each other in the head, that has a limiting impact on the message of banning head shots in games.
If you tell players you can't send an elbow or a shoulder to a competitor's head—even if the blow is accidental—but then fans and players are applauding enforcers who throw punches at each other, you have a problem.
How can anyone say the sport is doing all it can to limit head injuries when hockey fights continue to be a part of the culture?
Extra Safety Precaution
If a player takes a shot to the head in the game, that player will skate off the ice and go to a "quiet room" where they are to be evaluated by medical personnel.
At the very least, players will be observed and evaluated for a period of 15 minutes (source: New York Times).
However, some players who take head shots don't always show immediate symptoms.
Instead of forcing the player to the quiet room for 15 minutes, remove that player from the game and don't let him play until the next day. He should be observed the day after the hit and perhaps the day after that before he should be allowed to play in the next game.
The NHL can require players to use smaller shoulder pads. This will lessen the likelihood that players will use their shoulders to deliver blows that can impact the head.
Players are not allowed to target the head, but it happens anyway. With smaller pads, any player who has the inclination to deliver a shot to the opponent's upper body will think twice before finishing the hit.
A smaller pad means a smaller hitting area for the player delivering the blow (source: TSN.ca).
There is so much that is not known about concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University has been studying brain injuries for several years, and most of its research has focused on football players and their injuries.
This is an area that medical science is still learning about, and much more research needs to be done.
The NHL can offer financial assistance to fund further research so it can help determine a proper course of action for the sport in the future.