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Pulling No Punches: The NHL’s Persistent Concussion Problem

Over the past few years I have written several articles about the incidence of head injuries in professional hockey.  Sid Crosby, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – these men have all played a role in my education about the perils of the sport.   On Saturday night, I finally made my way into the city to watch my first live hockey game (sidebar: in case you missed it, after three crazy see-saw periods, the Leafs’ centre Dave Bolland eked out the OT winner against the Oilers).   I craved a firsthand immersive experience in hockey culture, and I needed to know: Do dirty hits and fighting have a place in the game?  Is on-ice violence a necessary cog in the greater machine?

Since the start of the 2013/14 season, the media has been saturated with opinion pieces spouting the points and counterpoints in the hockey violence debate, and with good reason.   On October 1st, Habs’ forward George Parros engaged in a fight with the Leafs’ Colton Orr, awkwardly tumbled over his opponent and hit the ice face-first in an unbroken fall.  He lay motionless for several minutes and was ultimately carted off the ice on a stretcher.   Last week, Habs GM Marc Bergevin indicated to the Montreal Gazette that Parros was ‘almost symptom-free’.   Interesting concept, in theory, not unlike being ‘kind of pregnant’, I suppose.   Anyone who has suffered a concussion knows that all it takes is one lingering symptom to shift your life’s pace from 6th gear down to 1st.   You’re either symptomatic, or you’re not.  On October 4th, the Nashville Predators’ defenseman Roman Josi took a huge hit from Colorado’s Steve Downie and sustained what is reportedly his fifth concussion since 2009.  Not only has Josi not returned to the ice, but he has not even been able to work out since his head injury.  On October 8th, the Rangers’ Rick Nash sustained a concussion after taking a first-period headshot from Sharks’ defenseman Brad Stuart.   While Nash is on mandatory IR for 7 days, technically he could return to the ice this Wednesday, although the most recent reports indicate he is still ‘experiencing symptoms’.  This is familiar territory for Nash, as he was already forced to sit out four games in February of this year due to a concussion.

In the midst of these early season head injuries, researchers at a Mayo Clinic conference last week called for a ban on fighting at all levels of the sport.  As the sport is played now, they said, it causes too much trauma.  Scientists are calling for reforms in bodychecking and want to see fighting banned in the NHL, in the minors, as well as at the junior level. Researchers are asking for immediate ejection after a single fight in the NHL, because they firmly believe the NHL needs to serve as the role model for the rest of hockey.  Then just a few days after the conference wrapped up, hockey legend Bobby Orr wrote this in the Globe and Mail:  “But the more I look at the current state of the game, the more I realize a simple truth about it.  The threat of a fight, or the fear of doing something that might trigger retaliation, is a powerful deterrent.  It always has been, and it always will be.”   On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable argument, however a recent study out of the University of Ottawa found that ‘the kind of blow delivered in a hockey fight [particularly a left or right hook to the jaw], is as dangerous to the brain as it gets’.


So here we are, just a couple of weeks into the season, and already 3 players are out with concussions.  Head injuries.  Brain injuries.  The back and forth banter about the role of fighting in hockey, of course, continues.  I enjoyed the game on Saturday night. I soaked up the incredible agility of some of the players, their stickhandling skills, the game strategy…  It was, admittedly, a much more organic experience seeing the game played in person.   Then something changed.  Between the second and third periods, the lights dimmed, and bombastic choral action-movie-trailer type music filled the arena.   All eyes were on the Jumbotron, on which commenced a ‘fight reel’ with clips of a series of epic hockey fights through the history of the NHL.  All the ‘great’ enforcers were featured – Semenko, Domi, McSorley.  Nearly everyone rose to their feet, fists pumping, cheering; it was a surreal scene, and it had more than a whiff of Roman Colosseum to it.   In that moment, it was clear that in order for the incidence of brain injuries in hockey to be reduced, not only will NHL culture need to shift, but that of the audience as well.   Bruce Arthur, sports columnist for the National Post summed it up so eloquently, so tidily, in the summer of 2011, just a few days after Wade Belak reportedly hung himself:  “This shouldn’t be a political issue in the sport; it should be a human one.”

Jenn Hartman, Medico-Legal Analyst