NHL Concussion Problem Tougher To Deal With Than You Think

Alan BassSenior Writer IApril 6, 2011

In the northeast United States, there’s an NCAA college hockey program that has been very successful in recent years. In the last five seasons, they have reached their league’s championship game three times, winning it once. They continuously finish close to or in first place at the end of each regular season. Their players consistently finish toward the top of the league’s scoring leaders. Their entertaining contests, each and every weekend, often garner the highest attendance among the school’s sports teams.

One of their best players – and a team captain – has won the league’s MVP trophy, in addition to the team’s rookie of the year award when he was a freshman. Watching him fly around the ice this season, you would never know that he was in the midst of the worst injury of his career – a concussion that would leave him unable to even do schoolwork when the season was complete.

But there was only one person that knew he was hurt for most of the year: himself. Through the majority of the season, he played with a concussion. And when he thought he was better, he suffered another, even more serious head injury when he was hit with a check in practice. These concussions were just two of nine (that team management knew of) the team dealt with this year. None of the players were out of action for more than two months.

When people talk about dealing with concussions, they often simplify it. “Make them sit out for the rest of the year, no matter what,” suggests one fan. “Why don’t they realize that their future is more important than playing a couple games right now?” asks another. “The coach should hold the player out until the coach is 100 percent sure he’s ready to play,” a final fan offers. Those suggestions are all well and good, but it doesn’t exemplify what a dedicated athlete thinks about first.

“My team is the number one thing to me,” the aforementioned college player said. “At different points of the year I had a separated shoulder and ligaments torn in my right foot as well. The concussion was just another example of keeping it to myself and not letting my teammates down. I have only four years of college to play hockey, and I'm going to make every single one of them count. If I sit out, my team struggles. I am letting my team down by not being out there. If I can still play at a high level, I'm going to play.

“The only time I really felt okay was on the ice. Off the ice I had constant headaches and irritability when it came to concentrating and very bright rooms. But all I wanted to do was play hockey.”

It’s very easy to say what should happen, in an ideal world. In an ideal world, there would also be world peace and no disease, poverty, death, taxes, or anything else of the ilk. Many, who have never been a part of a competitive team at the college, major junior, or pro level, fail to understand the chain of events that occurs when a player has a concussion. In college or major junior, players are trying desperately to win and make it to the next level. And for some reason, when a player plays through a head injury, the response is often “What dedication!” instead of the more logical “What an idiot!”

In the pro game, many players are working on an annual basis, never knowing if they’ll get an opportunity when their current contract runs out. If a third- or fourth-liner suffers a concussion in his contract year, he is much more likely to return before he’s completely healed, because if he doesn’t there might not be a job for him the next season. If a star player is knocked out of competition, there isn’t necessarily the threat of him not finding a job the next season. But he also knows that without him, his team has a lesser chance of making the playoffs or winning a championship.

“I don't want to end up having long-term issues later on in life and those close to me kept reminding me of that,” said the college player. “But I guess athletes can be stubborn. I just wanted to win, at any cost. I battled injuries all year that no one knew about. The drive to win kept me going. I have all summer to recover.”

And what if a professional team misses the playoffs due to multiple impact players out with concussions, and because of it, ownership decides to clean house and fire the GM and his entire hockey operations staff? This leaves scores of ordinary people waiting in line to pick up an unemployment check, while numerous players, when new management comes in, could be on the move when trades are made.

The point is, it’s difficult to state the answer to this crazy, variable-filled concussion equation, because there are so many factors in it that it’s most likely never going to be fixed in any contact sport, let alone the NHL. But oversimplifying the problem and suggesting answers that just won’t work are not what the sport needs. It needs knowledge, understanding, and the ability to see it from every perspective.

“The idea that the issue is simple or black and white is so untrue because every concussion is different. The first one I suffered, I was dizzy and had trouble with bright rooms. My second was one where loud noises and concentrating became difficult. Every concussion affects someone differently.”

When a team trainer inquired about the possibility of him having a concussion, he claimed he was fine. She suggested to him that if he felt any worse he should stop playing immediately, and made him promise that he would seek medical attention once the season was over.

“[The team trainer has] known me for three years. She knew I wouldn't have been truthful with the coaches or doctors. She was just concerned for me. She knew there was nothing she could have done to stop me from playing. I was going to play until I physically couldn't anymore.”

Author’s Note: This article is not intended to suggest that it is okay to play with a concussion. It is simply intended to show that the issue is not as black and white as many are making it seem. The issue of concussions is a serious one that needs to be addressed by hockey leagues throughout the entire world, regardless of age group. Any player with a concussion should not, by any means, return to action before they are fully cleared by the team’s medical staff and coaching staff.

Alan Bass, a writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers' Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.