By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

It was just a little over a year ago that Sidney Crosby scored the goal of a generation, lifting Team Canada to a dramatic victory at the Vancouver Olympics. Today, the NHL’s best player and major marketing vehicle is out indefinitely due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome. On January 1st he was hit in the head by the elbow of David Steckel, a blindside hit – no penalty was assessed on the player. On January 5th he was hit from behind by Victor Hedman and his head struck the glass – no penalty was assessed on the player. We do not definitively know whether it was the first hit, the second hit, or both that induced the concussion on Crosby; I am of the belief that he actually suffered two concussions, one from each hit. For there to be absolutely no consequences to the players that have ended Crosby’s season (while not officially announced, we need to look at this practically: it is mid-March and he is still not symptom-free) is an absolute travesty and a miscarriage of justice. It should be a clarion call that the National Hockey League must improve upon the headshot rule and move to eliminate all hits to the head.

“It’s Part of the Game”

There was a time when hockey fans would somewhat regularly a disturbing image on their television screen and not give much of a second thought beyond, “Keep your head up, kid.” That image would be of a player that had just been on the wrong end of a thunderous bodycheck that targeted their head, flopping and flailing around on the ice like a newborn baby deer. Such hits were celebrated, a trumpeting of how tough a game hockey was and how tough you had to be to play the game. When Scott Stevens obliterated Paul Kariya in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals with a check in which Kariya’s head was targeted, the ESPN commentators noted that Kariya “never saw that coming because Stevens came from his right and he was looking left.” As much as they lauded Stevens’ physical prowess, when Kariya returned later in the game and scored a key goal, he was hailed to an even greater extent.

An Unconscious Paul Kariya

Kariya suffered a concussion on the play, one of several during his career. In today’s NHL, he almost surely would not have been allowed back on the ice after the hit. Indeed, Kariya has chosen to sit out the entire 2010-11 season in order to recover from post-concussion syndrome in the hopes of returning to play hockey next season and beyond. For his part, Stevens would almost surely have been ejected from the game and likely received supplementary discipline from the NHL for a blindside hit to the head. But back in 2003, those hits were simply “part of the game” and were considered acceptable. Injuries sustained to the players were said to be of their own fault, for either not being aware of their surroundings or for having their head down. In the machismo world of the NHL, blaming the victim ignored the problem and shifted the focus away from long-term injuries to a lack of toughness.

Throughout that era, careers were shortened due to concussions. Brett Lindros had to retire at the age of 20, after only 51 NHL games, due to post-concussion syndrome. His older brother, Eric, suffered numerous concussions throughout his career, and missed an entire season to recover from a massive check delivered by, you guessed it, Scott Stevens. While the Lindros brothers are the most famous and well-known players of the era to have careers ended by concussions, they were certainly not the only ones. Among many others, Adam Deadmarsh, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Primeau, Jason Botterill, Petr Svoboda, Brad Werenka, and ultimately Stevens himself all had to retire prematurely due to post-concussion syndrome. Some of these players were injured accidentally, but others were retired by blows to the head that resulted in significant brain trauma. Yet the NHL did nothing to address the problem. It is not entirely their fault, as the science involving brain injuries was not fully developed in that era, but they should have moved quicker to protect the livelihood of their players.

The Science of Concussions

It is really only in recent years that we have made great scientific advances in studying the human brain and its reaction to trauma. There has been considerable discussion in the scientific community about methods of prevention and what happens to the brain in the aftermath of being concussed. To date, unfortunately, there is no real method of healing, so that leaves us to focus on how to prevent the injuries and how to mitigate the symptoms one endures when going through post-concussion syndrome. An examination of what a concussion is would be appropriate here. Simply, a concussion is a brain injury caused by a sudden jarring blow that causes the brain to slam against the inside wall of the skull. This can result in a bruise to the brain, along with severing nerve endings that causes the brain to literally misfire, making even simple chores very difficult for a concussed person. Not all blows to the head will result in a concussion, but since the brain floats inside the skull any jarring blow can trigger an injury that may not meet the criteria of a concussion. The following image shows the areas of the brain that are operating when a person performs a simple arithmetical calculation, before and after a concussion:

Florida Atlantic University. Neural Basis of Cognitive Deficits Associated with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. http://www.ccs.fau.edu/section_links/HBBLv2/Research/MTBI.html

This is a very striking image – the brain is literally hyperactive trying to perform what would otherwise be a routine task. Those who have suffered a concussive are often sensitive to light, unable to travel, and may find themselves repeating themselves asking simple questions. There are many other symptoms involved in a concussion, and they make daily living an almost unbearable labour. Professional wrestler Bret Hart described his early experience with the concussion that ultimately ended his career as follows:

People with concussions are the last ones to figure out how badly hurt they are. I was more responsible than anyone for downplaying my condition to myself and everyone else. Somewhere inside me, a fearful voice cried out that I was seriously hurt, but that same voice warned me to quit listening to my brain because it was my brain itself that was damaged…I drifted through every day in a pale-faced, sweaty, head-pounding stupor, pacified to the point of numbness by the four Advils I took every three hours.
Bret Hart. Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. Toronto: Random House, 2007, p.510.

What is additionally frightening about concussions is that once a person has suffered a first concussion, they are increasingly susceptible to future concussions. It reaches a point where an athlete can be risking their lives every time they step on to the field or the ice because of the injuries they have previously sustained. This was the case with Eric Lindros. After the Stevens hit, many felt that it was inevitable that he would end up injured again. It was only a matter of time. Yet the desire for the athlete to compete, and the absence of an outside force (i.e. a doctor) telling him that he could not safely resume competition, was strong enough that he was willing to go back on to the ice and risk further, possibly even permanent and/or debilitating, injury.

Enough is Enough

The impetus for change in dealing with headshots did not come until October 2009, when Mike Richards delivered a blindside hit to the head of David Booth. Booth laid motionless on the ice for several minutes and was out of action for some time. He returned in February 2010, only to receive another concussion after a hit by Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jaroslav Spacek that forced him out for the rest of the season. Richards was not penalized on the play, nor did he receive supplementary discipline. However, in the court of public opinion he was vilified, and fans and the media demanded the NHL change its stance on hits to the head. Nothing happened.

It was not until Matt Cooke delivered a similar blindside hit to the head of Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard that the NHL finally took action. Because there was nothing in the rule book at the time of the hit to Savard, Cooke went 100% unpenalized. Even though he is a player with a history of dangerous play causing injury to others, who has since been suspended on two separate occasions for attempts to injure other players, he emerged scot-free from that event. The only solace Bruins fans could take in the incident that ended the season of their best player was the vigilante justice distributed when Thrashers forward Evander Kane one-punch KO’d Cooke later in the season.

The NHL was, and still remains, far behind the curve when it comes to headshots in hockey. In international play, all hits to the head are penalized with a major penalty and a game misconduct, plus a minimum one-game suspension. There is no provision for “north-south” hits or blindside hits – if you hit a player in the head or neck area in international hockey, you’re out of the game and subject to further supplementary discipline. While some view this as excessive in certain circumstances—i.e. Shea Weber was once ejected from a game only a minute into the action for a hit to the head; he would receive a 3-game suspension, which was in effect a 4-game ban due to how early the hit came—it leaves an absolutely strong message that hits to the head are intolerable in the international game.

So when the NHL announced Rule 48, many felt that it was simply a first step that did not go far enough. Here is the text of the rule:

Rule 48 – Illegal Check to the Head
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.
48.2 Minor Penalty – There is no provision for a minor penalty for this rule.
48.3 Major Penalty – For a violation of this rule, a major penalty shall be assessed (see 48.4).
48.4 Game Misconduct – An automatic game misconduct penalty shall be assessed whenever a major penalty is assessed under this rule.
48.5 Match Penalty – The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.
48.6 Fines and Suspensions – Any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular League or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.
If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).
National Hockey League. Official Rules – Rule 48: Illegal Check to the Head. http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=64063

The main weakness of the NHL headshot rule is that there is room for an official’s discretion. I have spoken previously of my lack of confidence in NHL officials, so I am not exactly of the perception that leaving player safety in the hands of a referee’s judgment is best for the players. The official must be of the belief that the head was targeted and that there was intent to injure in order to assess a penalty. The second major weakness is that it still permits “north-south” hits to the head in the game. A Scott Stevens-esque check is acceptable, even if it results in a concussion that ends a player’s season. There are simply not enough teeth in the rule for it to be a true deterrent to players targeting the head of another player. Its weakness is why there was no penalty taken against the players that ended Sidney Crosby’s season.

After They Hang Up The Skates

Concussions are very perilous. Multiple concussions are even more troubling. Marc Savard returned to the ice this season, only to be put out of commission again when his head was driven into the boards by Matt Hunwick. Going through a second round of post-concussion syndrome, Savard’s very career is now in jeopardy. We have seen what has happened to athletes in other sports that have sustained multiple serious concussions in their careers. Athletes who have suffered concussions are prone to other alarming neurological disorders later in their life, including Parkinson’s disease, which affects “The Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali. However, these disorders may yet prove to pale in comparison with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The chart below documents a concussed person’s potential journey:

Sedney, Cara L., et al. “When to Consider Retiring an Athlete After Sports-Related Concussion.” Sports Medicine 30.1 (2011), 190. http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/0278-5919/PIIS0278591910000578.pdf

As fans of the game, we often overlook that these are real people who have real lives outside of hockey. Sidney Crosby, even if he is perfectly healthy for the rest of his career without any further long-term injuries, will only be a hockey player until he is 35-40 years old. As a Canadian, he has a life expectancy that may exceed 80 years. Players, organizations, fans, and media need to consider that for the balance of their lives, indeed often the majority of their lives, hockey players will not be hockey players, they will just be regular people. Nobody wants to think of the idea of a former player in their 50’s or 60’s suffering from depression, or committing suicide. The recent announcement that CTE was found in Bob Probert’s brain coincides with similar discoveries in professional athletes from other sports: former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk was killed in 2004 after experiencing hallucinations and driving his vehicle into a tanker truck, and professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and child before committing suicide in 2007. CTE was a major—though not the only—contributing factor in their personal situations taking turns for the worst in the later years of their lives, as all three struggled with various personal demons including drug use and bouts of rage.

Getting Tough on Headshots

Stiffening the punishment for blows to the head is the only way that players will be sufficiently deterred from targeting the heads of their opponents. But working hand-in-hand with that must be improved education so that the players understand the consequences of inflicting a concussion on another player. I am not privy to what the Players’ Association discusses at its meetings, but they must take a stand and address the lack of respect demonstrated within their ranks. When a player like Trevor Gillies, who returns from a 9-game suspension for attacking another player and then taunting him to play 1:13 of his first game back before delivering a blow to the head of Cal Clutterbuck, does that sort of thing it absolutely embodies the lack of consideration the players have for one another. While Clutterbuck was uninjured on the play, he very easily could have been. There are other examples on an almost nightly basis, be it a slewfoot, an elbow to the head, a two-handed slash to the leg, or a stick in the skates on an icing play. The NHLPA should hold a very public session with its members to make them fully aware of the consequences of a concussion. They should also work hand-in-hand with the NHL to craft a new policy on headshots.

What, then, should be the penalty for a blow to the head?

First, an automatic game misconduct. If you hit a player in the head with your elbow or shoulder or fist on an unsuspecting player, you should be assessed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct. Stick infractions and fighting are covered separately by the NHL Rules, and do not fall under this suggestion.

Second, an in-person hearing with the NHL’s disciplinary committee. Hearings conducted over the phone are generally seen as a way to quickly dispense with a minor suspension or a fine; if the League intends to demonstrate that it is serious about headshots, it must hold its disciplinary hearings in a serious manner. At that time the player can make his case that the hit to the head was not deliberate and that the suspension ought to be commuted. There are mitigating factors in the course of a game and these deserve to be taken into consideration when evaluating the length of a suspension.

Third, there must be a suspension of no less than five games. It can be higher if the disciplinary committee feels that there was a deliberate attempt to injure, but five must be the baseline. There must be a demonstration that hits to the head are considered to be worthy of greater penalties than for making lewd comments in the media or knee-on-knee hits. Even in instances where there was no deliberate attempt to injure, the NHL must take a hard line to protect its players’ heads. Five games off for a player making a million dollars equals forfeiture of $61,000, no small amount. If a person is a multiple repeat offender, the suspension can be no less than double the previous suspension. If a player has demonstrated that he has not learned to be more aware of his presence, he deserves to be out of the game for an extended period and forfeit his salary. It is fitting that the money deducted from a player’s salary for suspensions goes to the NHLPA Pension Fund, as it benefits the players after their careers have ended.

While the details are simply suggestions, there must be a firmly established sliding scale for punishment for blows to the head. Remove all grey area and do not allow this ridiculous kaleidoscope of disciplinary action to continue. Ben Eager got suspended four games for punching an unsuspecting Colby Armstrong in the head; Milan Lucic punched Freddy Meyer in the head when Meyer’s arms were restrained by the officials and received a $3,500 fine. Joe Thornton was suspended for two games under Rule 48 for his check to the head of David Perron; Daniel Paille was suspended for four games for his headshot against Raymond Sawada. In order for a rule to have teeth, it must be enforced consistently and firmly. We should not hear about a particular player “getting off lightly” in the TSN Quiz panel when it comes to suspensions and/or fines for headshots.

The more we learn about concussions and their long-term effects on an individual, the more it becomes plainly obvious that we must demand action to prevent them. A blow to the head is not the only way in which an NHL player can be concussed. However, it is the most prominent and severe manner that a player can suffer a traumatic brain injury. There will be those accidental moments when two players not fully paying attention collide, or a clean check results in a player’s head bouncing off the boards or ice. But on the occasions when a player targets another’s head and goes for the kill-shot, the NHL has a responsibility and an obligation to take firm action against the perpetrator. It is well past time to implement serious rules with serious punishment. Sidney Crosby’s injury should have been the impetus to revisit Rule 48. The NHL missed that opportunity. How many more of its players will have to be concussed due to blows to the head before it wakes up and realizes that it needs to take the next step, and implement a full ban on all headshots?

Conclusion

Hockey is a tough, physical sport played at a high speed by elite athletes. There is always going to be some measure of tolerable violence in the game. A solid check that is intended to separate a player from the puck has been and always will be part of the game. Fighting, for all of the problems and outcries it generates, has been and always will be part of the game unless there is a major event which significantly alters the mentality surrounding the level of acceptability we find in fighting in hockey. The cries from the likes of Mike Milbury and Don Cherry that “leftist pinkos” are trying to take contact out of the game have it wrong; well-reasoned and well-intentioned people are trying to ensure that there is still a quality of life for players long after they have stopped playing hockey.

Even with stiffer deterrence, headshots causing injury will still occur. There is no panacea that will remove that element from the game. While stiffening penalties, raising awareness, and promoting education of the consequences of concussions will help inspire to think twice (in some cases, once) about the type of hit they look to make, things can still happen in an instant that will have a profound effect on a player’s livelihood for months and even years to come. There is a growing outcry among the public to see greater levels of punishment for those who transgress the rules of the game and injure other players. While some advocate that the player who injures another player should be suspended for as long as the injured player is out of the game, this is not a reasonable scenario and certainly something that the NHLPA representation on the competition committee would never approve. But there must be something established that can be used to deter players and mollify fans who are sick and tired of seeing players carted off the ice on stretchers. The growing tidal wave of concern about concussions and blows to the head is not going to stop until the NHL firmly lays down a policy designed to protect its players. The most reasonable thing for the League to do is institute a plan to ban all headshots in an attempt to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the number of concussions sustained by its players. It is already too late—the League’s brightest star is shelved indefinitely, and there will be more unless the NHL bans all blows to the head.

This Is Not How We Should Remember Sidney Crosby