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On concussions and Taylor Hall’s first “scrap”

March 4, 2011

The scourge that is the concussion (ie, traumatic brain injuries, call it what it is) epidemic in the NHL has been more sharply drawn into focus in 2011, with the injury of the league’s superstar and ambassador Sidney Crosby and the findings just now released by Boston University that the late NHL enforcer Bob Probert suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The condition was well-documented in NFL players, and is just now being explored in the brains of once NHLers. The results are not shocking by any stretch of the imagination.

The NHL’s lack of action and, indeed, promotion of the plays and behaviors that result in concussions (hard, barely legal hits and fights), is what is shocking at this point. Perhaps it was coincidence, a matter of foul timing, but this morning on the NHL’s homepage, Oilers rookie Taylor Hall’s “first scrap” was up front and center. Initially, if my memory stands, the headline did not mention his injury, though it now does. Additionally, the sidebar headline features the word “WATCH” with a hyperlink for the video. This is par for the course on NHL.com. The big hits and big fights of the previous night are on seemingly equal footing with the stunning goals on a regular basis. While Hall appears to have sustained an ankle injury, not a head injury, in his fight with Blue Jackets’ Derek Dorsett, seeing a 19 year-old duking it out is not ideal. This is not to fault either party for fighting. Rather, the NHL’s response is what leaves something to be desired. It seems unlikely Hall will be fighting again any time soon, it was a one-off event. However, the signal it sends is wrong. If fighting incurs a major penalty, five minutes, and is so clearly a factor in concussions and long-term brain trauma, why is the NHL insistent on packaging and presenting fights as a cornerstone of the game?

Simply—because fans enjoy it. I would be remiss and disingenuous if I said I did not enjoy the occasional, well-timed, well-considered, not overly bloody fight. Why? I don’t know. I just don’t know. And perhaps the NHL doesn’t know either.

What I do object to is the NHL’s wholesale embrace of fighting and desire to perpetuate it.

It doesn’t even seem to be a matter of hypocrisy. For all NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s claims that the NHL has been proactive in addressing the concussion issue, the NHL has remained impotent, largely silent and mostly unconcerned with the altogether distressing explosion of concussions across the league. And these are concussions afflicting not just the “enforcers” and the “tough guys” but players like Brad Richards, Mike Green and more than I have the time to name here. The NHL’s “interest” in the findings seems a bit hollow. It’s odd when safety or health precautions are released. While it’s true hockey players are professional athletes aware of the risks of what they’re undertaking, if hockey were peanut butter (salmonella), traveling in confined spaces (swine flu) or baby toys (lead poisoning, small plastic pieces) it would be stopped altogether or quickly changed.

That is, to say, the NHL is woefully behind the times. Waiting for more conclusive evidence to arrive requires time, something players lack. NHL careers can begin and end in the blink of an eye. How unjust to leave players, young and old, in a precarious position like that.

A ban on hits to the head seems the most sensible option. This may seem extreme, radical and perhaps even draconian. But, without this, the league’s players, some of its best and brightest, may be faced with ever more days away from the ice. For fans, for hockey, for all involved…this is the worst possible outcome. Perhaps NHL.com will need to generate new content to fill those headline pages, but it will be for the better.

 

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