Monday, January 6, 2014

The Better Part Of Valor: Hockey & Head Injuries

As published in The County Times ( in May 2011

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

On May 12, 2011, the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings met in game seven of NHL’s Western Conference Semifinals.  The Sharks had jumped out to a 3-0 series, but being the heart-full champions and playoff stalwarts that they are, Detroit battled back to even the series at three games apiece.  Entering the decisive seventh game, San Jose had home ice, Detroit had the momentum: it was anyone’s series. 

Home ice prevailed.  The Sharks thwarted a late Detroit rally to win 3-2.  During the captivating series both teams displayed a resiliency and determination that I long to see in my beloved (but habitually choking dog) Capitals.  As enthralling as game seven was, the outcome, at least for someone with no rooting interest in either team, took a backseat to more serious contemplation halfway through the contest.  

During the second period, Detroit’s Danny Cleary was accidentally blindsided by teammate Jiri Hudler.  Hudler clipped the side of Cleary’s face as he brushed by his unsuspecting teammate at full throttle.  Cleary, instantly senseless, fell limply slamming his head onto the ice.  After a few motionless moments, Cleary regained adequate faculties to wobble off the ice with considerable assistance. 

This scene – a concussed athlete staggering off the stage - has become too familiar.  Better diagnosis combined with bigger, stronger and faster athletes have contributed to a concussion epidemic in violent sports.  For its popularity and viciousness, football is most synonymous with head injuries.  Hockey, though, is certainly in the dubious discussion.  With twelve players loose in a boarded arena, equipped with sticks and whacking a frozen chunk of rubber at 100 mph, is it any wonder? 

And yet, while these sports share this serious problem, the primary line of concussion prevention – helmets – have traveled very different evolutionary paths.  NFL helmets have changed dramatically over the last 20 years.  Gone are the comical single-bar facemasks of Joe Theismann fame and the loose-fitting shells from prior generations.  The outer shell, padding, facemasks and chinstraps of NFL helmets have experienced a dramatic transformation.  And in this corner we have the static NHL helmet, lacking any recent noticeable change and resembling a bike helmet more than a protective device worthy of hockey’s physicality. 

While the hockey helmet itself is limited, NHL players could choose to wear full “cages” (composite frames or full plastic shields) that provide protection to the entire face and jaw area.  Such contraptions are required for college and high school players.  Despite these alternatives, most NHL players, valorous roughnecks as they are, compete with nothing more than a loosely fitting lid and the occasional token visor.  With all due respect to Franklin Roosevelt, there is more to fear than fear itself for athletes prone to concussions; it’s called chronic traumatic encephalophathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that’s increasingly common in athletes who have experience multiple head traumas.  CTE symptoms include memory loss, mood instability and depression and it has almost certainly been a contributing factor in the pre-mature death - some via suicide - of retired athletes.

There are moments when our situational view clouds the big picture or even the blatantly obvious.  In these moments, we rely on workplace leaders to point out that our performance has slipped or on friends to honestly confront us about a toxic relationship or dependency.  Similarly, the NHL needs to acknowledge its “save me from myself” situation, and require the use of full headgear, “cages” if you will, immediately.  It’s unrealistic to think players, whose toughness and recklessness helped them reach hockey’s pinnacle, will make this transition for themselves.  The NFL has at least created the perception of proactivity in preventing concussions; it’s time for the NHL to follow suit.  Having players like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and the Capitals’ Mike Green miss significant time with concussions stinks; what’s worse is seeing a player’s long-term health…or life…compromised.  While the science behind the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions will continue to improve, forcing discretion, for the time being, through the use of maximum protection, seems an obvious choice to one not so close to the game or deeply programmed by its unyielding culture. 

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