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Concussions in Hockey: A Dark Cloud Hanging Over the Sport With A Simple Solution: Play By The Rules

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January 19th  was a great day for ice hockey in North America with the return of the NHL, and especially in my state, which celebrated our annual "Hockey Day in Minnesota." Today, two high school teams played outdoors on Lake Pokegema in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers mens' hockey team played North Dakota, and then the Minnesota Wild played their season opener - all on TV.  Across the state, youth and high school teams were also playing the game they love. But, while it was a day to celebrate hockey, it is also a reminder of the dark cloud that hangs over the game: concussions.

Hockey referee

Minnesota Wild player, Pierre Marc Bouchard, played his first game in 18 months since he suffered a concussion which caused him to miss all of last season.  In my high school team's game today, a player on each team suffered a serious concussion.  For our player, it was his second, and he will likely to be out for several weeks. Last season he missed the final month of the season with a concussion. The other player was hit on a legal play, at least according to the referees, but since it resulted in injury, a five minute major penalty was called. 

I sent six hours watching games on TV today and two hours with the high school team I coach. I saw a lot of very skilled players at all levels and some very exciting play. I also saw lots of very physical play that injures players. I saw college players who were not wearing mouth guards. I saw a punch to the face in the college game that was ignored by the officials but replayed numerous times on the TV broadcast. In the pro game there is lots of crushing body checks, tripping, holding and of course the obligatory fight in the early part of the game that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. In our game I saw lots of heavy body checking, blows to the head, boarding, checks from behind, elbowing, charging.  You get the picture. 

What I am seeing is that players continue to ignore the rule book, and are allowed to do so by the officials. I can understand that, at the professional level, a high stick to the face that draws blood is only a 4-minute minor penalty, but it sets the tone for the lower levels. 

One could argue that the pros need different rules,  but I wonder if  that is good for hockey, where the rulebook is open to interpretation.  I have heard some real crazy explanations from officials this year. It seems that the rules are really only recommendations and on ice officials enforce them - or not - at their discretion. Mostly not. 

To that end, we know about concussions and the danger they pose to the long-term health of players, and yet, for some reason, the hockey community does not have the will or courage to do anything to prevent them. Technology, such as helmet sensors and other gadgets, are not the answer. The solution is really quite simple: stop allowing players to be hit on the head. 

If we want to prevent most concussions, the rule book needs to be enforced at all amateur levels. Hockey is a tough, physical game and injuries, including concussions, will occur.  But if the rules are enforced all of the time, not just some of the time, injuries will be reduced significantly. 

It's time to play by the rules.  




Unnecessary roughness and violence ruined hockey for us

We live in CA. Baseball and tennis were our sports until my son saw ice hockey in a video game at age 9 and announced that he wanted to play it. We knew nothing about the game but were excited that he had chosen a sport on his own, so off to the local ice rink we went. Fast forward two years: my son is pretty good and is moving up levels. The family likes the game and to watch my son play. On the other hand, I am concerned that boys on other teams seem to be coached to hit hard for the sake of hitting. I observed lots of unsuspected, from-behind hits away from the puck. Sportsmanship? I blamed the other coaches (my son's coaches did not teach the boys to hit like that). I blamed the NHL for setting the example of hooliganism on the ice.

At age 12 my son had not yet started his teen growth spurt and some of the kids he was about to be on ice with were 4-6 inches taller and weighed 30 pounds more. I was getting worried that my son would get hurt and began to question whether hockey was appropriate for him. Luckily the problem got solved. One day at the rink I met the parents of a 13 year old who told me he had sustained a concussion during a game. They told me their son was face-down on the ice in front of the goal for about 5 minutes. As the dad told me the story of the injury his face was twisted in pain as he relived the horror of those moments. The mom forced a smile and said, "I could see his feet moving so I guessed he was OK." That was all I needed. When my son's desire to play hockey began to waiver because of increased academic demands at school, I did not encourage him to continue with the sport. Risking brain damage wasn't worth it. BTW: My son's favorite hockey player is Sidney Crosby. We saw on TV both of the hits that traumatized Sid's brain. My son is no idiot. His hockey stick rests in a place of honor in his bedroom. He plays other sports now.

Eric Golanty, Ph.D.

First Aid for Sports Injuries (http://ergo84.com/fa/)