Unpacking the NHL’s Concussion Controversy
Time stopped for Sidney Crosby on Monday night in Pittsburgh for the fourth time in his career.
Crosby, known as one of the best skill forwards in the NHL, sustained a concussion after a hit from the Capitals’ defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period of Game 3 of the Penguins-Capitals playoff series. Crosby did not return for the rest of the game and missed the next one.
There is mounting concern for Crosby, who has four reported concussion-related injuries in his 12-year NHL career. There also could be more unreported injuries that went unnoticed. Crosby’s career length and well-being after hockey are up for debate.
Many former players with concussion histories have struggled with health issues in retirement. However, both the players and the NHL haven’t helped each other enough to combat the issues. From players’ hesitancy to report concussions in the past, to Gary Bettman’s denial of a link between concussions and CTE, the NHL has a concussion controversy.
This season, at least 13 players across all 30 teams were listed on injury reports with a concussion or a head injury. Concussions aren’t a recent issue in the league either. In 2011, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study that found 559 concussions amongst NHL players from 1997-2004. Pat LaFontaine, a talented forward in the 1980s and 1990s, suffered six in his career and ultimately retired at 33. Eric Lindros had seven across 15 years.
The difference for Crosby, LaFontaine and Lindros though, is their overall ability. While they missed considerable time with concussions, their place on rosters was never in doubt. That wasn’t always the case for Bryan Muir.
Muir played with seven different NHL teams and constantly rode the shuttle to and from the minor leagues. He also suffered from multiple concussions, even reporting instances of vomiting on the bench after a hard hit. During his playing days, concussion tests weren’t as expansive. If x-rays couldn’t find his injury, he wouldn’t report it to the team for fear of being sent down.
This is the concussion culture in the NHL. Fringe players don’t want to admit they’re hurt because of their tenuous grip on an NHL roster. Many of these players sacrifice their health because of it. This leads to long-term health effects after their careers are over. While it’s understandable for players to feel this way, they’ve harmed themselves from doing it. Muir has mentioned he misses his playing days, but he also notices changes in his mood. He has a short temper and mood swings, and he’s unsure if it’s due to the concussions.
For others, like Dale Purinton and Dan LaCouture, substance abuse, depression, and memory loss riddled their post-career days and led to strains in their personal lives. Both were arrested at one point, and LaCouture lost his wife and custody of his kids. Athletes these days have to be aware of what their bodies tell them when sustaining heavy injuries.
Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador each suffered concussions during their playing days in the 2000s. Boogaard officially had three, and it led to impaired memory and depression later in his life. He accidentally overdosed on painkillers and died in 2011.
Montador retired shortly after a hit to the head in 2012. He died in his home in 2015 without a clear cause of death. Both had CTE, a brain injury that is only detectable after death. Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression and issues with impulse control.
These symptoms line up with injuries from concussions. Despite this, the NHL isn’t certain of a link between concussions and CTE, leading to dissent between the league and former players.
Last October, Commissioner Gary Bettman wrote to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that the speculation of a link between head trauma and neurodegenerative diseases is unproven. He mentioned the gaps in the research of CTE as additional proof.
The Rotman Research Institute at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences found recently in early testing that there isn’t a strong correlation between concussions and cognitive functions. Retired players, including a participating Muir, actually do well with it. Despite the early conclusions in that study, it doesn’t match what the players feel. Bettman’s stance is alienating the former players who have noticeably changed since their days in the league.
Previous athletes began to take action against the league for it. Over 126 former players who’ve had concussions are filed a lawsuit against the NHL. The suit claims the league did not do enough to protect them from head injuries and resulting health issues. It’s reached as far as the federal courts as the NHL maintains the absence of a causal relationship.
The former players and the league are taking the same path as the NFL. The league denied the relationship too, and former players sued. Eventually, the two sides reached a settlement in 2015.
The NHL is fulfilling its duty now to prevent concussions. Hybrid icing, concussion spotters and fines for violating protocol are important for preventing future head injuries. At the same time, they have an obligation to aid the former players that are suffering through the aftereffects of hockey. Likewise, the players have to be honest with doctors and coaches if they are suffering through injuries. Even if it’s a player fighting for his roster spot or a postseason game, the ramifications of the game have to take a backseat.
Sidney Crosby is skating with his teammates in practice. He is still questionable for Game 5 tonight, but if he’s healthy, he’ll likely play. If there’s even the slightest issue with his health, he must sit. As history has proved, the NHL and its players have to address the issue head on. Delicately, of course.
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