DENVER—At Tuesday night's Colorado Avalanche game against the Nashville Predators, two people, paid by the NHL, intently watched players from each team for any sign that they might have just suffered a concussion. At the NHL's midtown Manhattan office, another four league-employed people monitored that and other games from the night on televisions and other private camera angles, looking for the same warning signs of concussion.
Down on the ice, trainers from the Avs and Predators had walkie-talkies on their hips, in case any of the four concussion "spotters" needed to radio their concerns over any particular player. Also on the ice were two referees and two linesmen, who, starting this season, have been tasked to pay closer attention to symptoms of concussion and have the authority to tell a team its player must exit the game if they see enough evidence.
Not counting the trainers, who always are on the lookout for any sign of injury to their players, there are 20 eyeballs in every NHL game trained to spot concussive symptoms, all part of a new initiative by the league and the NHL Players Association to improve on concussion detection.
This season, for the first time, teams themselves no longer have the final say on whether a player should come out of the game to be further examined by a doctor.
So far, there has been only one documented instance of a player removed from a game on the advice of a central spotter. That happened on Oct. 16, after Edmonton Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson collided with teammate Adam Larsson and had his head snap back.
As agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA before the season, any of the four "central spotters" at the New York office can officially tell a team trainer that a player should come out of a game if they see warning signs of concussion. The two spotters in the arena, one looking out for each team, report to the central spotters if they see something. They don't have the power to tell a trainer a player must come out (in fact, they can't communicate at all with the bench), but their opinions obviously carry a lot of weight with the central spotters.
Prior to this season, there were concussion spotters in each arena, but they were employed by the teams themselves and trainers could ignore their recommendations if they didn't agree, leading to criticism that the oversight lacked teeth.
The new concussion oversight system means players have less worry about coming forward with any symptoms, or having to play on to prove their "toughness" to any old-school coach or general manager.
Players want to play, and there have and will continue to be times where they want to play on, but a sampling from the Avs' and Predators' locker rooms showed strong support for the improved oversight.
"It's a really good thing," said Predators captain Mike Fisher, a 16-year NHL veteran. "I remember guys, back in the day, would be too nervous to report any symptoms. It was just, 'I got my bell rung, gotta get back out there.' I saw guys have fights with the trainer, and it's not the trainer's fault.
"Now, guys know it's not just up to them to decide, and I think it's a really good thing. The big picture is so important—for everyone. We all want to play, everyone knows that, but you've got to be smart. Especially, with the research today, if you get one and you get a second one right away, it's not good at all."
Said Avalanche center John Mitchell, who missed the 2014 playoffs because of concussion symptoms: "I think all the players think it's a good thing. You don't want guys to play when they shouldn't because the effects can get worse and affect the rest of their lives. I think we've seen too many instances of that already, with guys who played in the older days."
Technically, a team can still ignore the recommendation of any of the spotters that one of its players should come out, but if it does it will be subject to large fines, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
The league does not disclose the names of any of the spotters, but Daly said they are all trained medical professionals well-versed to detect signs of concussion.
"None of this has anything to do, per se with 'thinking someone is concussed.' It's about whether a visible sign is detected that mandates removal of a player for evaluation," Daly said.
The NHL actually was the first professional sports league to introduce baseline testing and other protocol to diagnose concussions, in 1997. That didn't stop ex-players from filing suit against the league for improper education and treatment of concussions, however. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Avs captain Gabe Landeskog wrote a piece for the Players' Tribune recently, about his battle with post-concussive symptoms following a big hit against him by Brad Stuart in a January 2013 game in San Jose against the Sharks. Landeskog said he felt immense internal pressure to want to play on, which he did later in the game, for fear that he'd let his teammates down or be labeled as soft. The symptoms got worse, and he missed the next 11 games.
As Landeskog wrote for the Players' Tribune, players are more accepting of the seriousness of concussions.
Already, a cultural change is taking place in NHL locker rooms. So many of my teammates came up to me and said, “Hey, you need to have patience with this stuff. Take your time coming back. We need you fully healthy.'
I can’t stress enough how important that was to me. If even one teammate had said something like, 'Man, we really need you back. You’re putting us in a tough spot,' I don’t know if I would’ve had the patience to fully recover.
Pat Karns, a longtime former trainer with the Avalanche and who was offered a position as a central spotter but declined because he didn't want to move to New York, said he would have welcomed concussion spotters in his day. There wouldn't have been any "This is my turf" defensiveness.
"This support from the NHL and its spotters is welcomed by all, including myself. Another set of eyes on the guys is a great way to provide meaningful action," Karns said.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who said he had "a handful" of concussions as a journeyman minor-league defenseman, knows he might have a key player taken out of his lineup by powers beyond his control. But he, too, is OK with that if it means the big-picture health of that player.
"You want to make sure your players are taken care of. When I [was a player] it wasn't always known that you had one," Bednar said. "Now there's so much better education, and that's obviously a good thing. Knowledge is power, and everyone is on the same page on this—the players, management, coaches and the league."
Tuesday's game finished without any central spotter recommendations that a player come out. Regardless of what happens in a game now, players can rest assured: Someone is watching out for them.
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.