Concussions, the captain, and the Kid

Interesting speculation in Friday’s Montreal Gazette from Pat Hickey. Could Scott Niedermayer’s indecision about whether to continue his playing career relate to his concern about past concussions?

If so, that would explain the 34-year-old superstar defenseman’s seemingly extraordinary ambivalence about trying to captain the Anaheim Ducks to a second straight Stanley Cup. Perhaps he “got his bell rung a little” (to dip into old-school parlance) during the finals against Ottawa and it wasn’t publicly disclosed.

When recuperating from a concussion, you can be feeling refreshed and ready to go one day, and then not nearly so good the next. Not everything is as clear-cut as the cranium-crushing hit Scott Stevens laid on Eric Lindros in open ice in the 2000 playoffs. Just ask Jarret Stoll of the Edmonton Oilers, whose January concussion could have been caused and/or aggravated by separate collisions with Samuel Pahlsson and Kevin Bieksa. Sure, he would like to have helped the Oilers make a push for a post-season berth, but he kept matters in perspective:

“Coming back too early makes it so easy to get another concussion,” Stoll said. “I don’t need another one. For the risk of what?”

Indeed, you can be making $2.2 million a year and dating Rod Stewart’s ex, like Stoll, but your quality of life can still be sub-par if you’re suffering from the aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury. Ex-NHLers such as Geoff Courtnall and Jeff Beukeboom can tell you about the lingering horrors of dizziness, headaches, and nausea.

So now, why am I dragging Sidney Crosby into this discussion, considering that last year’s NHL scoring champ has no documented history of concussions?

It’s because I firmly believe the NHL should adopt a policy automatically penalizing hits to the head like the IIHF, the NCAA, and the Ontario Hockey League, instead of waiting for a hypothetical incident like the following to be the trigger point:

ANNOUNCER: “Sidney Crosby has not moved since the hit…still lying at center ice…there’s a great deal of concern on the Penguins’ bench right now…”

COLOR COMMENTATOR: “You see right here, Crosby loses the puck in his skates for a second, and Smith has him all lined up…Crosby tries to duck and takes the worst of it…no elbow from Smith, it’s a clean hit, just devastating…it’s a physical game, it’s unfortunate, but Smith comes across with perfect timing and catches Crosby right on the chin…”

CROSBY (three months later): “It’s frustrating. I want to be back on the ice with the guys, but I’m still not feeling like myself. Right now, the doctors really don’t have a timetable for me.”

You’re never going to eliminate concussions completely from a game as physical as hockey. What you can do, though, is eliminate the distinction that arbitrarily designates shoulder hits to the head as “clean.” The health, safety, and long-term career prospects of NHLers are far more important than the cheap thrills of watching players get their heads taken off.

Sure, NHLers voluntarily choose to compete under the current rules. But most of them are also still young guys in their 20’s who don’t understand the full impact concussions can have on their lives for decades to come.

The argument of “How could Zdeno Chara hit Martin St. Louis at all if they changed the rule?” is a red herring. Chara makes the necessary adjustments to avoid high-sticking St. Louis in the face; there’s no reason why he can’t do the same with body positioning on hits.

In some cases, that may require passing up a hit. So be it. When a player goes to hit an opponent into the boards and the opponent turns, he’s expected to try to avoid plastering the guy face-first into the glass, and if he doesn’t (or can’t), a penalty is assessed.

Implement a no-hits-to-the-head policy, and the players will adjust, just like they did with the new rules over the last two seasons.

And that might prolong a few careers. It’s too late for Eric Lindros to benefit. But anything that increases the chances for stars like Scott Niedermayer to keep playing as long as they want is a good thing. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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