In this week's 'Making of a Royal' blog, head coach Pat LaFontaine discusses concussion safety and testing. LaFontaine's Hall of Fame career was ended by a concussion, so he is very passionate about the subject matter. He retired in October, 1999. LaFontaine believes the NHL has taken positive steps in dealing with head injuries and concussions.
Concussion safety has come a long way from when I played. Personally, I've been a proponent for it since I retired. I've been through it twice and know the ramifications and severity in dealing with post-concussion syndrome.
People resist change and that makes me laugh. When we went to 4-on-4 in overtime, traditionalists said you can't change the game. But I've been saying for the longest time that we're so much better than what we're doing as a whole. One of the great things the League did in 2004 was allowing the speed to enter the game. With that, came greater collisions and we started to find out at an early stage that the speed on impacts was so great there were things we were missing. All of these factors played into rising concussions. It's inevitable that if speeds are greater and guys are bigger, faster and stronger, hitting the head will cause more concussions. So with all those changes, came a bag of negative things; but we didn't want to deal with it.
Here's the thing, 95 percent of the body is available to hit. We know that if you hit the head hard enough, you're likely going to have concussion issues that, potentially, could have long-term effects. We knew that, but were still caught up with thinking we're going to lose hitting.
I'm a traditional guy, but you only grow through change. I think there's been a real shift in the NHL and it's making the game better. I'm enjoying watching games because guys are thinking twice about throwing an elbow. There's no honor in nailing a guy from behind, no honor in hitting a guy in the head. It's called a cheap shot because there's no honor in it and it shouldn't be in our game.
I give the League credit for stepping up and taking responsibility and saying, "It's time we get rid of this stuff."
The greatest part of our game is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but we don't need to see players being carted off the ice during that period. There's been a real shift in protecting players and getting rid of cheap shots in our game. I give credit to [Department of Player Safety's] Brendan [Shanahan] for stepping up and not backing down.
The hardest position to play the last five or six years has been defense. We put a lot of pressure on defensemen by saying, "Hey, you have to learn to be versatile; you have to learn to pivot better." They have to be so good in all areas and then, at the same time, we're warning, "Oh by the way, when a guy is coming at you at 40 miles per hour to wave off an icing, good luck."
The head and neck should always be protected and it's being done and it's trickling down into the minor-league levels. So, for fathers and mothers who have kids out there who cringe when it was somewhat tolerated in the NHL a long time ago, now it's not. It's already trickled down into the minor-league levels, so for a parent and coach, that's great to see.
When I discuss checking and hitting with my players on the Long Island Royals, we always talk about some of the mistakes that are made -- like getting your hands up to protect yourself; that's not hitting. You have to lower your shoulder and aim for the other guy's shoulder, aim for the chest area. I always tell the kids to keep your arms down. The minute they lift their arms up or they lead and go up to hit a higher area, it's not good.
If someone is turning in front of you, you can bump him -- but you can't drive him. Let's be honest, the definition of a check was to remove the player from the puck. In the past, it was hit any guy within three seconds before he had the puck and nail him as hard as you want whether he's looking or not. A lot of these injuries were created when the players didn't have the puck on their stick.
I'm really happy and feel good about the fact we've made changes. I'm a physical player and I love to be in a tight, physical game. I've seen some of the best hits this year than I've seen in the last 10 years because guys are learning how to hit. You have to create the environment, you have to create the boundaries and then those players have to play within those boundaries.
Players in the NHL can adapt -- we've adapted to your foot in the crease, no clutch and grab, stick infractions. We can adapt to not targeting a guy's head and not hitting him from behind and I think we're seeing a better brand of hockey because of it. It's actually brought back the art of checking again and that will trickle on down to the next generation in the minor-league levels.
Let's face it, if your mother or father see players being carted off on a regular basis and being concussed, why would they want their kid to play hockey. I'm excited for the changes.
Here's the thing, I can tell you first-hand that these teenage boys watch the pros and want to be pros. They watch the NHL; it's as good as it gets. Last year, I would tell kids to be careful of teams taking liberties. I'd tell them to be careful in the corners . The videos being shown by Shanahan are great for not only the NHL players, but the younger generation. We watch them; they're great examples being shown in the NHL and if you do play outside of those boundaries, you will be held accountable. Accountability is the best teacher and we'll look back at the end of this year and probably say we should have done this a long time ago.
I downplayed the first one because I thought it's just a hockey game. We just want to win the game; it's against our rival and we want the two points. I downplayed it, but now having gone through the first one I look back and say, 'Geez, that was really cool.' I think as I've grown a bit older I've got a lot more appreciation for what we're allowed to do every day.
— Capitals forward Brooks Laich on the 2015 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic, the second one of his career after 2011 in Pittsburgh