When the NHL gets back to its real business of playing hockey—instead of locking out its players—the issue of player safety will once again become a vital issue.
Whenever the season starts, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger will be on the sidelines with no timetable for his return to the lineup. The same holds for Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins. Savard has been out since early in 2011, and his return is considered highly unlikely.
The NHL has been trying to get out in front of the concussion issue for several years. The issue came to the forefront when Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke hit Savard with a blindside shot to the head that knocked him out of the lineup for nearly three months.
Sidney Crosby missed the majority of each of the last two seasons with concussion-related issues.
Rule changes that leveled severe penalties for head shots were instituted.
However, equipment changes can also help make the game safer.
One of those changes, however, will not deal with any changes to the current hard shell, polycarbonate helmet.
Those helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures and lacerations. They are not designed to prevent concussions.
A helmet that would prevent concussions would have to be softer, according to Dr. Reuben Echemendia, who worked with the NHL and NHL Players Association Concussion Group. (Yes, there was a time when the two groups worked together.)
Echemendia told NHL.com a softer helmet that absorbed impact might prevent the impact of concussions but would not do as good a job of preventing severe injuries.
"As a matter of fact, there was some concern among the biomechanists that if we tried to make a helmet that prevents concussion, we may be going in the other direction and see an increase in skull fractures and these other types of injuries," Echemendia said.
However, softer shoulder pads and elbow pads could go a long way towards preventing concussions.
Hard, plastic shoulder pads increase the impact when a player makes contact with an opponent.
No player can target an opponent's head legally, but when a player skating at full speed makes contact with an opponent's upper body and knocks him down, a blow struck with harder shoulder pads has a chance to cause more impact, knock the opponent down and cause potential concussions.
Mouthguards may or may not help prevent concussions. According to Echemendia, data points to the use of mouthguards preventing dental injuries, but not necessarily concussions.
However, if there is just a small chance that mouthguards can prevent or lessen the impact of concussions, the league must mandate them and continue to do research on which mouthguards are most protective.
Theoretically, mouthguards absorb force when an upward blow to the jaw is struck and they can also stabilize the head, according to SportsDentistry.com.
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