NHL deals with concussion problems

This article can be found published in the March 29, 2010 issue of Delaware County Community College’s newspaper, “The Communitarian.”
The hit on Eric Lindros ultimately ended his career as a Philadelphia Flyer. (Sports Illustrated)

The hit on Eric Lindros ultimately ended his career as a Philadelphia Flyer. (Sports Illustrated)

Philadelphia Flyers forward Eric Lindros crumpled to the ice after being hammered in the jaw by the shoulder of New Jersey Devil Scott Stevens during Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.

Lindros stayed down on the ice, unable to get up, suffering aconcussion that ultimately ended his career as a Flyer. It was a sight teammate Keith Primeau will never forget.

“At the point in time, I thought I was looking at somebody’s career end,” he said.

Primeau knows all too well what Lindros went through. A member of the Philadelphia Flyers from 2000 to 2006, Primeau cemented himself in Flyers history with his dedication and the way he played the game. He was named captain of the Flyers from 2001 to 2006.

During his tenure on the Flyers, Primeau suffered four concussions: two in 2000, one in 2004, and the final one that ended his career came only nine games into the 2005-06 season.

“I’ve been getting bumped on the head since I was 5, 6, 7, 8-years-old,” he said. “I had more [concussions] than the documented four I had playing, so I couldn’t even guess [how many]. It’s north of 10, for sure.”

Primeau is one of the more than 30 NHL players whose careers have ended by concussions or post-concussion symptoms since 1996. This number does not include the players in other leagues, such as the minors, or even those who played in the NHL before 1996.

Ten to 12 percent of minor league players (ages 9-17) who are injured suffer concussions every season. In fact, Canadian amateur hockey players over 18-years-old had roughly 4.6 to 6.0 concussions per 1,000 player-hours, according to Anthony Marchie and Michael Cusimano, neurosurgeons at St. Michael’s Hospital Injury Prevention Research Centre in Toronto.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a concussion as a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that causes the brain to malfunction. Concussions can also occur from a fall or blow to the body that forces a rapid movement of the head, making the brain bounce off the skull. Some symptoms are immediate, but others may take a few days up until a week after the incident to appear.

According to the American Academy of Neurology, symptoms can range from confusion, dizziness, headaches and clumsiness to nausea, blurred vision, difficulty concentrating and loss of equilibrium. Concussions are categorized as Grades 1 through 3, with 1 being the mildest and 3 being severe. In a Grade 3 concussion, the person loses consciousness for a few seconds or a few minutes, sometimes longer.

Repeated concussions can cause damage to the brain that may require surgery or lead to long-lasting problems with movement, learning or speaking, experts say.

Philadelphia Flyers Captain Mike Richards knocks out Florida Panthers' David Booth. (Getty Images)

Philadelphia Flyers Captain Mike Richards knocks out Florida Panthers’ David Booth. (Getty Images)

The NHL has had more than 30 players suffer concussions or concussion-like symptoms as a result from hard hits to the head since the start of the 2009-10 season. All of these hits were determined to be either legal or illegal by the referees. If a referee feels the hit is legal, he can assess the player with a charging, boarding, elbowing or interference penalty.

The NHL rulebook for 2009-10 states that if one of these illegal hits is a penalty and results in an injury to the face or head, the player is given a game misconduct, which involves the player being sent to the locker room for the rest of the game. When a player receives a game misconduct, the player is hit with an automatic fine of $200 and the case is reported to the NHL Commissioner, who will review the incident and determine if more disciplinary action should be taken in the form of a fine or suspension.

On the other hand, if the hit is deemed legal by a referee, then no penalty is called, even if the player on the receiving end is injured.

The question of what should be done to eliminate head shots and reduce concussions is a controversial one among players, coaches and general managers throughout the league.

In an NHL Players Association meeting near the end of the 2008-09 season, the players agreed that they wanted to see the league create a rule that would penalize intentional hits to the head.

Likewise, when the general managers (GM) of all the clubs convened in Toronto on Nov. 11 and 12 to discuss ways to improve the game, one of the issues raised was the question of how to deal with head shots.

After the two days, the GMs formed a small committee to review the hits that have taken place this season in preparation for the next meeting March 9 and 10 in Boca Raton, Fla.

The second of meeting of the GMs ended with a proposal in hand for a rule change: “A lateral, back pressure of blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline.”

The proposal will be sent to be approved by the Competition Committee later this spring, and from there it will be forwarded to the Board of Governors for the final approval. If it passes, it will be instituted into the rulebook for the 2010-11 season.

The new rule will not take away all hits to the head, but the general managers agree that it is a step in the right direction.

Former Flyer Keith Primeau still suffers from post concussion symptoms. (Valerie Reason)

Former Flyer Keith Primeau still suffers from post concussion symptoms. (Valerie Reason)

“You can still hit this guy, you just can’t target his head,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke told NHL.com. “Hitting in our game – it’s part of the fabric of our game. It’s what’s distinctive about hockey in North America. Anywhere else on the planet you go, there’s not as much hitting as there is in our game. We want to keep that, we want to preserve that. But we want to take out a dangerous hit where a guy targets a guy’s head. He cans still reef the guy; he just can’t target his head.”

After his fourth concussion, Primeau played two more games, but the headaches returned, forcing him to sit out the rest of the season. On Sep. 14, 2006, Keith Primeau hung up his skates and retired.

“I continue to get better, but I’ll always know I damaged my brain,” he said. “I still get head pressure whenever I get sick or my immunity goes down. It goes right to my head. When I exercise and elevate my heart rate, I get light-headed and disoriented.”

Primeau believes that the players have lost respect for each other. Players nowadays have no fear, he said, because of the lack of retributions and repercussions for their actions which allows them to take too many liberties.

According to Primeau, the biggest solution would be a league mandated rule that any direct hit to the head, whether intentional or unintentional, will result in a penalty.

“We have to make sure we continue the awareness,” Primeau said. “My biggest fear is that head trauma [and] post-concussion is going to become like a MCL, an ACL, a separated shoulder or a pulled groin, and it’ll become an accepted part of the occupation. It’s more important than that. It needs to be treated as a life situation as opposed to a hockey situation.”

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Categories: Health, Ice Hockey, NHL, Sports

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