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Dan's View From Center Ice - 12/27/2011

by Dan Rusanowsky / San Jose Sharks

Sidney Crosby was leading the National Hockey League in scoring when he was knocked out of the game for nearly a year this past January. Now back in action after much therapy, he is again sitting out because he is experiencing “post concussion symptoms.”

Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers was leading the NHL in scoring when an accidental collision with teammate Wayne Simmonds resulted in his departure from the healthy list. He has since returned with a bang, scoring four points in his first game back. Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators, who was unable to return for four overtimes when San Jose faced Dallas in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, was concussed again when he accidentally collided with teammate Erik Karlsson. He was leading the NHL in goals at the time. He is about to return from his injury.

But Chris Pronger is now out for the year, including the playoffs, because of head trauma. Peter Mueller has not been right since a Rob Blake check knocked him out of the 2010 post-season festivities, and a series between San Jose and Colorado. Andy McDonald keeps getting placed back on the shelf of walking wounded, and while we’re still in St. Louis, it’s good to see that David Perron is, knock on every piece of wood possible, back to health after a year of concussion symptoms.

With Michalek and Giroux coming back, there has been little let-up with the concussion issue. Simon Gagne of the Los Angeles Kings, Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, and John-Michael Liles of the Toronto Maple Leafs replaced the recovered players on the injury list.

Further to the subject, if one were to take the number of players being held out for concussions or concussion-like symptoms, it is said that a Stanley Cup could be won with that team. Even though the issue of head injuries has always been present, the effect of removing the most marketable and top-performing stars from the game and a few of the up-and-coming stars has gained further interest in and attention to the topic. It is good to see that the attention to player safety is there.

There are a lot of different avenues being driven over toward the answers.

In the research world, the doctors at the Boston University School of Medicine have been analyzing the brains of players who donate them to science, including Reggie Fleming, Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert, and Rick Martin. A new condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is being diagnosed and studied.

In the facilities world, new boards and glass with more “give” are being tested in practice. We see some of the better results at HP Pavilion.

In the equipment world, attention is being placed on the idea that with the improvement in player protection, the athletes are essentially victims of some of the advances. Composite sticks give nearly everyone a big shot, rather than the relative few that could shoot 100 mph with a wooden stick. Larger shoulder pads and other protection outfit players in a suit of armor that can dehumanize an opponent.

In the playing and coaching world, habits are difficult to break and behavior is slow to react. The trend of players collapsing down low to play a kind of goaltender in front of their own gardien de but is in part due to the fact that the padding protects them from the pain that used to be felt when blocking a shot. But the idea of “leaving one’s feet,” an impossible term literally, skating through the neutral zone with one’s head down, or turning to face the boards with the back to the play in order to protect the puck, are still in the game.

There are a few pieces of equipment that are attempting to address the head trauma issue. Like helmets of any kind in the 1970’s, full face shields and half visors since, the adoption of this equipment is slow. Some of it is related to the “you have no courage” issue that was thrown at goaltenders in the days of the bare-faced brigade, but some of it is due to the equipment, such as the Mark Messier M11 helmet, not passing the “mirror test” for some players.

What is the “mirror test?” Well, if a player puts the equipment on, and he doesn’t see a stylish and masculine individual staring back at him, the equipment is rejected. It is sort of like making the choice between driving an AMC Pacer or a Ferrari 512 BB. Yes, hockey players are a little vain, sometimes.

Predictably, there is increasing call for “something” to be done about the newly-found epidemic, and usually, the first thing that the word “something” points to is the elimination of fighting in the NHL. I think that’s another debate for another time, so all I’ll say is that the idea of allowing players to take matters into their own hands is what freedom-loving Americans seem to appreciate, within a strict set of limitations.

But rather than getting up in arms about the head injury issue and about the certain misfortunes of some players, I look at what is happening in the League now and can compare it to how much more serious safety issues were addressed in another sport: motor racing.

Back in the 1950’s, drivers didn’t wear fire suits, opting for a golf shirt, gloves, and a helmet/goggles combination that didn’t really protect when traveling over 150 mph. In 1955, Pierre Levegh crashed his magnesium-framed Mercedes into the crowd at LeMans, killing himself and over 80 spectators. In 1957, the Marquis de Portago flew off the road at over 150 mph during the Mille Miglia, killing himself, his navigator, and nearly a dozen spectators. In 1961, Wolfgang von Trips spun off the course at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, killing himself and a number of race fans.

The cars were getting too fast for the conditions. The fans were too close to the circuits without protection. The safety equipment was not passing the “mirror test.”

What has happened? Well, as the unfortunate death of Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas this fall attests, motor racing is still very dangerous. But with the addition of the HANS device, the SAFER barrier, and many other innovations, deaths in motor sports are far rarer. In fact, Formula One has not had a death since 1994, when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were lost on one fateful weekend at Imola.

The motor racing world continues to address the conditions, but they also recognize that everyone who participates takes a risk as well. Mitigating those risks and making the sport as safe as possible is the goal of every racing sanctioning body. There will always be more work to do on this topic, especially as the cars advance in technology.

So it is for hockey. The game advances. The players get bigger, stronger, faster, and the risks change. The issues are addressed. The work is done. The mirror tests begin to be less important. Risks remain, as in all contact sports, but they become more manageable.

These facilities, equipment, and player attitude changes will take time. But, as has been the case in motor sports, the risks that the players take every day will be more measured and manageable. The result will be that the greatest game in the world will improve.

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