Hit the head, get a penalty

20Jul07

I’ve often wondered why the NHLPA doesn’t do more to actually protect the physical health constituency. Sure, they do things like try to drive up salaries and pensions and stuff like that, but what about actual on-ice health concerns? Visors, dirty hits, hits to the head — the PA seems content to allow its players police themselves on these issues rather than looking at the big picture. The problem is that almost every hockey observer, from former players to longtime media members, have remarked on the degeneration of on-ice respect between players. Is it an old-school mentality or is the membership just too proud to acknowledge the dangers of these issues — especially concussions?

Since 1997, the NHL has used a baseline concussion testing program that gets a good reading of where every player’s neurological profile stands at the preseason. You get hit, the team doctors compare your tests to your baseline, and they measure progress from there. It’s forward-thinking and provides a good metric to gauge the severity of concussions, but here’s the tricky thing: with concussions, you just don’t know.

In the non-hockey world, the spotlight has been on pro wrestler Chris Benoit and his murder/suicide incident, and while many media pundits are quick to point out things like steroid abuse, painkiller addiction, and other chemical factors, most are overlooking the role that cumulative damaging effects of concussions could have played. One former pro wrestler/college football player named Chris Nowinski is trying to change the focus of the investigation to include this particular aspect; Nowinski’s work with former NFL players highlight the frightening downward spiral that athletes can experience thanks to repeated concussions.

It’s not just getting your bell rung, and it’s not just a few weeks of headaches. In severe cases, there’s depression, anxiety, sleepwalking, memory loss, loss of cognitive functions, violence, even suicide. Since leaving the WWE due to severe concussion problems, Nowinski’s turned his own suffering into a crusade for concussion awareness in sports. While Nowinski’s work has primarily been with football (and since the Benoit incident, media about pro wrestling), his lessons should be a warning to every hockey player and the NHLPA. One of Nowinski’s prime examples? Former NFL player Andre Waters who died by suicide and, according to a neurologist working with Nowinski, had the physical equivalent of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer’s brain. The doctor predicted that had Waters survived, the cumulative damage to his brain from concussions would have had him incapacitated within the decade.

For the NHL, concussions have been a hot topic for many years — just ask Paul Kariya, Jeff Beukeboom, and Eric Lindros about it. However, it wasn’t until recently that the specific issue regarding hits to the head has been brought up. The league is supposed to examine the issue and potential rules regarding it this summer. The question remains: will it do enough to protect its own players or will a lingering tough-guy mentality prevail in the face of overwhelming research and evidence?

The game is faster, the players are stronger, and the equipment is tougher than ever before. Armored like gladiators, an elbow to the head or a shoulder to the jaw provides a much bigger impact thanks to hard plastic caps within the equipment — an issue brought up to the competition committee and the league. However, the solution that some people are looking at is penalizing hits to the head — and the resistance to this movement is baffling, especially considering how many sports careers have suffered or ended because of concussions.

Some Canadian junior leagues, along with international play and the NCAA, penalize hits to the head. From all accounts, those leagues haven’t suffered in quality because of this rule, and really, why should they? Would implementing a rule to protect heads prevent players from delivering clean bodychecks or grinding in the corners? For anyone who believes this, the rebuttal is this: from early on, players are taught that the proper way to check an opponent is to start squatting down, impact the opponent’s chest, and use your legs to power through. Why? Because the goal is to knock the opponent off the puck, not decapitate him. Aiming for the chest and lifting up is an easy way to affect a player’s center of gravity while attacking a protected area. Done properly, the worst thing the impact can cause is getting the wind knocked out of you.

Why not implement this rule in the NHL? Once again, I have to wonder why the NHLPA doesn’t push hard for something like this, let alone at least support it. Don’t the lessons of countless concussion victims mean anything to the PA? Isn’t the PA designed to protect its constituents or is it just a means for ratcheting more money and bigger salaries for players?

There’s still this old-school mentality that calls for a ridiculous amount of macho thinking in hockey, especially with dangerous situations that can be easily remedied. What’s wrong with implementing a hit-to-the-head penalty? Does anyone actually support or defend hits to the head? Sure, it won’t clean up every aspect of the game, but it will at least set a precedent for saying that that type of behavior is dangerous, disrespectful, and can have long-term implications for PA brethren.

Some will point to the ridiculous argument of placing Martin St. Louis side-by-side next to Zdeno Chara, saying that if Chara puts his arm out, St. Louis will go face-first into his elbow, causing an unnecessary penalty — and the league can’t have any more unnecessary penalties. So what? Slashing isn’t judged by the length of a player’s arm. Kneeing and clipping don’t factor height or leg length into account. Players are different sizes, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be aware, careful, and respectful of each other.

Here it is, in black-and-white terms: Any damaging contact to a player’s head, whether it be by shoulder, elbow, hand, forearm, or stick, should be made a minor penalty with the potential for major as judged by the discretion of the official. Just as inadvertent high sticks are penalties, so should blows to the head. If the NHL can penalize hits below the knee, they can penalize hits from the neck up. It’s as simple as calling slashing.

Anyone who doesn’t support this type of protection in all sports should simply talk to an athlete forever damaged by the ravages of concussions. That can put things in perspective really fast.

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7 Responses to “Hit the head, get a penalty”

  1. 1 OddyOh

    Well said Mike. The NHLPA first needs to put together new leadership, and since Lindros is pretty much doing all the work, here’s hoping these issues will finally be put on the table.
    You’re also correct about the “macho” stuff that goes on in hockey…it’s pretty stupid these days.
    The Benoit murder-suicide is a horrific story, and if there’s any good that can come of it, I hope it’s opening people’s eyes.

  2. 2 Mike Chen

    I have to admit that I loved watching Monday night wrestling with the buddies in college (the NWO ruled!), and Benoit was a favorite. Reading all the recent stuff about the neurological damage wrestlers go through makes it pretty easy to line it up with hockey. I’m not a football fan, so all of Nowinski’s research was pretty new to me, but the evidence is pretty darn frightening.

    So yes, let’s hope Lindros helps take the reins on this.

  3. 3 Anonymous

    A Medical device now a subject of study with the NFL should be considered for NHL players.

    SPORTS

    An idea with some bite: Yet the NFL shuns advice that could curb concussions

    Dr. Gerald J. Maher is frustrated by the NFL’s indifference to his studies. (LISA BUL/The Patriot Ledger)
    By ERIC McHUGH
    The Patriot Ledger

    WEYMOUTH – If you were a nationally renowned oncologist and you told everyone you had discovered a cure for cancer, you would expect that they at least would hear you out, right?

    Dr. Gerald Maher hasn’t found that Holy Grail. But after nearly 30 years of poking around inside the mouths of New England Patriots players as the club’s unofficial team dentist, the 60-year-old Marshfield grandfather is fairly certain he’s found a way to help stem the rising tide of concussions in the NFL.

    Not stop it, mind you, but potentially reduce the numbers of beat-up brains on Sundays, Mondays and assorted Thursdays.

    A noble cause, right? And, yet, the reception he’s gotten so far from the league has been chillier than one of those old metal Foxboro Stadium bleachers in the fourth quarter of a December night game.

    ‘‘Sometimes,’’ he said, ‘‘it’s frustrating.’’

    From his office in Weymouth – Tom Brady could stand in the parking lot and hit South Shore Hospital with a deep throw – Maher has made thousands of trips down to Foxboro to outfit countless Patriots with his patented mouth guard. About 40 players used it last season, he said. The first one to sign on – running back Vagas Ferguson, way back in 1980.

    It’s a device, Maher said, that’s simple and effective – two small pieces of acrylic that fit over the back four teeth of each side of the lower jaw, linked by a thin ‘‘lingual bar’’ that rests behind the front teeth and allows better breathing and communication than the conventional wraparound mouth guard. It’s not cheap – $400 a pop, which includes an analysis of the jaw alignment and a custom fitting – but that seems a small price to pay if, in fact, it can stop gray matter from being scrambled inside helmets.

    After all, the NFL has seen enough of that. Al Toon, Wayne Chrebet, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Trent Green, Dan Morgan, etc., etc. – a sad litany of careers either prematurely ended or interrupted by the trauma of brain injuries. The league estimates that there are about 100 concussions per season. Who knows how many of those are inevitable and how many could be prevented? No one knows, for certain, what the long-term implications are for players who have been concussed multiple times, but evidence is mounting that in some cases there might be a steep, potentially fatal, price to pay down the road.

    Maher would like to offer some suggestions, but even as the NFL seems to be moving toward a more enlightened approach to concussion research, the former Holy Cross wrestler and rugby player finds himself on the outside looking in.

    NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is ‘‘always interested in looking at new ideas, new technology, new equipment.’’ Yet Maher has had two grant applications denied by the league – he said he requested $30,000 in 2004 and $89,000 in 2006 to conduct wide-ranging studies on the mouth guard – and he was not invited to speak at the league’s much-anticipated concussion conference today in Chicago.

    ‘‘Dr. Maher has been banging the drum about this for a fairly long time,’’ said Dr. David Bell, the Cincinnati Bengals’ team dentist who last season began outfitting a handful of his players with Maher’s mouth guard. ‘‘It seems to make a lot of sense, but the research has been kind of light. The NFL easily could take a more proactive position and give more help to the players.’’

    Point of aggravation

    Maher’s main beef with the league is that in studying the causes of concussions it ignores the role of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) – the meeting place of the lower jaw and the skull. TMJ is Maher’s specialty, and it’s the basis for his mouth guard. Yet he is appalled that no one versed in the subject is on the league’s controversial, 14-member Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury – a group that critics charge has downplayed the effects of concussions in order to limit the league’s liability in case of a class-action suit by former players.

    ‘‘I don’t expect they understand the biomechanics of the TMJ very well,’’ Maher said, ‘‘and it’s a piece of the puzzle. I think it’s a big piece of the puzzle, and to ignore any piece of the puzzle is not good science.’’

    Maher said there are three ways to sustain a concussion – by a blow to the jaw, by a blow to the head, or by a whiplash effect on the neck. Maher’s mouth guard attempts to prevent the jaw-based concussions. According to Maher, the NFL has said that those account for 70 percent of all concussions in games.

    Maher’s mouth guard brings the lower jaw slightly forward, moving the condyle (the nobby tip of the jaw) to rest against a slightly thicker portion of the skull, thereby providing more cushioning. The mouth guard also ensures that the condyle does not slip off the thin disk of cartilage that is supposed to sit on top of it and act as a ‘‘shock absorber.’’ The point is to make the jaw absorb and dissipate the force of a blow that otherwise would radiate upward into the skull, where it could rattle the brain.

    Maher said the NFL’s recent vow to make players tighten their chinstraps – a move the league’s researchers say will limit concussions – could actually exacerbate them. If a player’s condyle were not properly aligned with the cartilage disk, Maher said, scrunching the jaw and the skull closer together would just increase the energy that would be transferred to the brain in a collision.

    ‘‘This stuff is so simple,’’ he said. ‘‘It makes so much sense. When I explain this to another dentist, they’ll say, ‘It’s just logical.’ I know. I’m not this great scientist that has invented nuclear physics here. It’s pure biomechanics.’’

    Long list of admirers

    Maher might not be feeling any love from the NFL, but he isn’t lacking for admirers.

    —Mahercorlabs.com, the Web site for his company, Mahercor Laboratories LLC, is full of testimonials from Patriots players past and present – everyone from Dan Koppen and Asante Samuel to Dan Graham, Lawyer Milloy, Matt Chatham, Vincent Brisby and Hall of Fame guard John Hannah. Samuel, currently embroiled in a contract dispute with the team, says in his endorsement that he had suffered three previous concussions but hasn’t had one in three years since using the Maher mouth guard.

    —Former Patriot Michael Haynes, the NFL’s vice president of player development, has gone to bat for Maher in the league office, albeit unsuccessfully so far. ‘‘Hopefully, some positive stuff will come out of it,’’ Haynes said last week. ‘‘It worked for me.’’

    —Duxbury High School football coach David Maimaron swears by it. After the Green Dragons suffered a rash of concussions, Maher began outfitting some players before the 2005 season. Maimaron said no player wearing the guard has been concussed. ‘‘From what I’ve seen, first-hand experience, it works,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it’s a no-brainer. Every kid should wear it.’’

    Eric McHugh may be reached at emchugh@ledger.com .

    Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger
    Transmitted Tuesday, June 19, 2007

  4. 4 Kate

    I’m a pretty new hockey fan, and I have to say, I really believe that the head-hitting is damaging to the sport in general because of how it’s covered by the media. Sure, it would be great if the sports media covered hockey in a more balanced way, but the truth is that the only hockey most people see are the ESPN clips of Pronger-style elbow hits. Instituting automatic penalties for head hits would not only help to protect the players from horrifying injuries, it would be good for the game of hockey in terms of overall perception.

    Does the PA actively lobby against tougher penalties for head hits? Because that’s just nutty. This whole debate is confusing to me because I honestly don’t see the downside to toughening up the rules in this regard. Reading about the possible effects of concussions is very disturbing, and I can’t imagine why the players union would be anything other than agreeable when it comes to protecting players from life changing neurological damage. What’s going on here that I don’t understand?

  5. 5 Mike Chen

    The PA (and the league) historically lobbies against anything that takes away “freedom” from players on the ice. Shoulders to the chin is traditionally a “clean” hit, so old-school hockey minds tend to think that if it was considered clean before, it should be considered clean forever, regardless of what modern science tells us.

    My main point is that I’m surprised that while the league has started to look at hits to the head thanks to incidents like Colby Armstrong/Patrick Eaves this season, the PA could have pushed for something a long time ago to try and institute a headhunting rule. It’s been in Canadian junior leagues for a few years now, so why couldn’t the leading league accept it?

    When Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya suffered from concussions in the late 90s, I remember mainstream media like ESPN Magazine and Sports Illustrated talking about the impact of concussions and the possibilities in hockey. Remember, at that time, those two were considered to be the best players in the league, and if those “clean” hits didn’t motivate the PA to move towards protection, what’s to say that they would react differently if Crosby and Ovechkin got hit?

  6. 6 sb24

    The points raised about the equipment are valid, but what has been allegedly “improved” over the years is subject to debate. I have been playing competitive hockey for the past 40 years, from high school, college, semi-pro and senior at highly-competitive levels and have been wearing the same helmet for 35 years without incident or injury, much to the dismay of the equipment companies. I wear the old Stan Mikita helmet, a suspension style helmet that allows all impact to be absorbed by the helmet since it is not in direct contact with your head. I have seen many of my friends injured by shots to the head while wearing more modern, “protective” helmets, including one injured to the point of permanent disability. All of these helmets fit directly on the head with foam cushioning softening the impact that still goes through to the skull. Like many other “modern improvements” such as the atrocious synthetic sticks (how many NHL players are going to break their sticks while simply stickhandling before these are consigned to the scrap heap?) and the tiny “gardening gloves” that pass for protection now, current helmets seem to benefit only the companies that make them. They barely last long enough to be replaced, and offer less and less protection in the tradeoff for speed and lightweight gear. The Mikita helmet was popular for several reasons: they offered great protection from injury, they were airy and cool and obviously built to last as my case proves. The only reason I can figure for its disappearance is the need for all gear to be officially licensed by the NHLPA, so we have a case of players’ health being auctioned off to the likes of Nike, et.al., to make a buck. I don’t know why the league and the players don’t look at suspension-type helmets as an answer to help this problem, but I believe it is a large improvement over what is being offered currently by the equipment companies.

  7. 7 FAUXRUMORS

    1) More shots to the head? More cheap shots? HMMMM, is it a coincidence that these seemed to have increased at the same rate as the amount of fighting majors has decreased?
    2) The NHL has been diligent about reducing pugilism and instigating, but have lost site on what those parts of the game do; Protect the players from each other
    3) Players are merely finding another outlet for their frustration. Allow the players to police themselves. Eliminate ALL instigator rules, and you’ll see a precipitant decrease in dirty hits/cheap shots!


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