Does the NHL have an issue with Concussions/Head Trauma Related Injuries?

“You can take my name off the Stanley Cup twice over. I can’t live like that anymore.” – Those are the words of former NHLer Daniel Carcillo who has a new goal, to improve his mental health and help others who suffer similar issues.  In one of the latest tales of ex-professional hockey players dealing with results potentially related to excessive heads trauma as a result of their experiences in professional hockey, Carcillo shares his thoughts of life after hockey.

Video Clip on YouTube:

There continues to be much debate as to the impact of concussions on professional athletes and in this case hockey players.  The game of hockey is fast and as it is a contact sport players bodies are getting jarred on nearly every shift.  For years and probably even more so today, the term “concussion” has been a bit of a taboo subject in major sports.  Professional leagues such as the National Hockey League state that their league does not have a concussion problem.  Why then are so many ex-NHLers coming forward and calling for change in the NHL?

Concussions in hockey can be caused by a number of events.  You have to think that any combination of the following can lead to head trauma during a game:

  • Body checks to the head – with today’s “body armor” that the players wear, a shoulder or elbow to the head is more than enough to inflict head injury.
  • Equipment – further to the previous point, today’s equipment is often covered by a hard, durable plastic or other substance that can feel like running into a brick wall as the momentum of a 220lb man skating at 25km/hr runs into you.
  • Body checks from behind – a hard jarring motion can cause a players neck to whip back potentially leading to a player heading their head in the glass, boards or on the ice
  • Fighting – if a boxer can get a concussion with a gloved hand, then a hockey player getting hit in the head with a bare fist can surely happen right? Some reports suggest that there is no strong efforts that blows to the head cause concussions or other head injuries. There has been great debate on this as evidenced in this post from the New York Times from 2011.

“We in science can dot the line between blows to the head, brain degeneration and all of these other issues,” said Dr. Charles H. Tator, a neurosurgeon and researcher at Toronto Western Hospital who directs programs to reduce head and spinal-cord injuries in sports. “So in my view, it’s time for the leagues to acknowledge this serious issue and take steps to reduce blows to the brain.”

Brain Injury Data

Image Source: Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs (U.S. Air Force photo)

After the 2010/11 season, data from the National Hockey League indicated that 8 percent of concussions resulted from fights.  To which Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the player nor the league were inclined to enact measures that would limit fighting.

Researchers generally agree that there is a link between repeated blows to the head and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.).  However they are uncertain which of the specific hits lead to the disease.  Again the typical response is that opinions are based on “limited data”.

Why isn’t more being done to determine the correlation between repeated hits to the head and C.T.E.?

The NHL has been discussing the issues for years, due in part, to a lawsuit that has been brought against them from former NHL players.  This article from TSN shares a snippet of some of the conversations the NHL has had over the years on the topic.

Link between fighting, concussions, ‘personal tragedies’ discussed in unsealed NHL emails

In 2009, when the NHL Players’ Association proposed a ban on targeted head hits, “the NHL at that point said, no, they didn’t like that idea,” Stephen Grygiel, the lead attorney for the former players said earlier this year during a March 16 hearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

In an interview with TSN in March, Carcillo stated: “Some of the onus for sure is on players,” added Carcillo. “These are our bodies. But everyone is scared to say anything. “You might not get another NHL contract. So we say ‘yes’ all the time and act like good little boys.”  He also mentioned that parents need to know what the risks are before they put their kids in hockey.  As a hockey parent this is something that I already know and think of every season when it comes to enrolling my son in minor hockey.

TSN recently had a great series entitled Under Oath on the concussion topic and the NHL.  The series reports on details of the sworn testimony of team owners, league officials, team trainers and doctors and medical consultants to the NHL and NHLPA, as well as former players in connection with the NHL concussion lawsuit. Rick Westhead, TSN’s Senior Correspondent has done an amazing job with his commentary and articles and we recommend taking the time to check them out.

Here is a sample of some of the articles:

There are also a couple of great videos that TSN has produced that you might want to check out.

Surfacing – a look at Paul Kariya and how concussions impacted his career and life. This is a must watch. Here it is in its entirety courtesy of HockeyWebcast via YouTube.

Lifetime Penalty – Rick Westhead examines how Mike Peluso and Dan LaCouture became different people as a result of the head injuries they sustained while playing in the NHL.

Kudos to TSN, Rick Westhead and the team that has been covering this very real topic of concussions.

Helmet Off Dressing Room

As a hockey parent and a huge hockey fan, my stance on the game has changed over the past ten years.  I used to be like many other hockey fans and loved the hard hitting action, the huge body checks and the hockey fights that use to transpire during a game.  For years I had seasons tickets to the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, I watch hockey at all levels.  Something has changed though.  We have teams being purchased for half a billion dollars and going to the Stanley Cup finals in their first season.  We have players that are 260 lbs that can skate like the wind.  We have players’ wives harassing other players’ families on social media.  We have parents pushing their kids at seven and eight years old to play hockey year round without any down time.  We have coaches short benching at nine years old. We have kids that cannot afford to play organized hockey. We have a league that is trying to “downplay” and draw out a lawsuit from ex-players who have legitimate concerns and issues.  Hockey is a game.  But it has become a business, and big business.  At eight years old I hear other players taunting other kids on the ice saying “it’s just business”.  I hear parents yelling at coaches, officials and their own kids.  These are kids people…

The dangers of the game are a real thing.  My son will be turning nine on July 1st.  I work with him on how to protect himself on and off the ice.  At any age, hockey should be fun, it should provide a great social environment and it should be enjoyed.  I no longer advocate (or appreciate) hockey fights.  In fact I would agree with Ken Dryden that perhaps it is time that fighting in fact should be banned.  I also agree that hits to the head should be banned and penalized more harshly, and perhaps it is time for hockey to become a non-contact support.  I used to play a little hockey (nothing competitive) and I was known to throw a mean (but clean) hip-check.  As a result I can remember other players getting injured as a result of these clean, hip checks.  I felt bad about it then I feel bad about it now.

I read Ken Dryden’s book when it came out last fall: Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey.  This is such as good read.  Mr. Dryden is an amazing author and his books about the game of hockey are some of the best ever published.  There definitely is a lot to consider after reading Mr. Dryden’s most recent book.  As the Globe and Mail stated in a review of Ken Dryden’s Game Change:

There’s much for readers themselves to process in Dryden’s latest book – Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey. This is a deep piece of investigative journalism that chronicles the emotional rise and quick demise of one of hockey’s many tragic figures. But it’s also a manifesto. A challenge to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whom Dryden identifies as the only person who can actually draw this troubled chapter in hockey’s history to a close. Dryden doesn’t hold back. He tells Bettman and readers both why and how the game must change.

Game Change is arguably Dryden’s most significant book since The Game, which is still widely regarded as the greatest hockey book ever written and as one of the best sports books of all time. As good as The Game was, this latest work is the more important to read right now.

Game Change at Chapters Indigo

You know I am not (and have never been) a strong supporter of Gary Bettman.  However the man is extremely intelligent and has made the NHL owners quite wealthy.  In his tenure as NHL Commissioner, the NHL has grown from 24 to 31 teams, the league has gone from annual revenues of $400 million to close to $5 billion.  He is the only commissioner in any sport that was behind three lockouts including one that cost the entire 2004-05 NHL season.  He gets the business of hockey.  Rumors suggest that he wants his swan song to be securing a $1billion expansion fee for an NHL team in the near future.

And while fighting is down in the NHL, I might argue that perhaps he may well end up on the wrong side of history for his public pronouncements on concussions.

The issue of concussions and brain injuries in hockey is a real thing.  So while I have learned to respect Mr. Bettman, there is one area that he has failed.  The issue of concussions and brain injuries in hockey is a real thing.  It’s time to acknowledge this and move forward in educating and protecting hockey players at all levels.

I watched the NHL awards from Las Vegas yesterday and the NHL did a great job in recognizing some tragedies from the past few months including the terrible Humboldt Broncos bus crash which still haunts many of us.  So the NHL knows how to deal with tragedy, but when it comes to brain injuries and dealing with concussions and such, there is still much more they can do… and it begins by acknowledging the fact that one brain injury is too many.  Bettman runs the NHL like a business and when his business is presented with a lawsuit the natural reaction is to get your guard up and fight back.  Mr. Bettman do you really think that the National Hockey League does not have a concussion problem? You might want to ask that question to the families of Dan Carcillo, Steve Montador, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, and Drew Mulligan  just to name a few.

Too often we are seeing ex-NHLers suffer depression, addiction and mental health issues which in some unfortunate cases such as with the aforementioned Wade Belak, result in players taking their own lives or self-medicating to the extreme.  The NHL no longer needs fighting… and if you think that the stick work will increase and that the stars of the game will get abused well there are other ways to police that activity.  More penalties, stiff suspensions and steeper fines come to mind.  Players in minor hockey should be taught not to go for the big check or blindside hit.  Focus should be on high skill plays and activity.  Hockey is a fast, intense sport, I get it, but where do we draw the line?  I liked Raffi Torres as a player, but you just cannot go through games trying to take guys heads off with an untimely, boarderline and sometime full-on dirty body check.  At the heart of the game, the goal (pun intended) is to get the puck into the net.. to score.  Over the years we have seen coaches and teams focus on other areas such as intimidation and fighting, excessive man-to-man coverage with the dreaded “trap” style of play, the art of shot blocking etc. All of these tactics stifle the beauty of the game.  The fast skating, sleek puck handling and passing and precision shots that a Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin can unleash.

No hockey fan, and I mean no hockey fan pays to see a player carted off this ice on a stretcher after taking a shot to the head whether it be by body check, errant elbow or haymaker fist. Focus on the skill and not on the hit.  Let’s get back to the fast skating, creativity that the game allows for.  Players can still police themselves, but then again is that not part of the job description of the officials?  I no longer want to watch YouTube clip of hockey fights.  I want to watch the top dangles, creative passes and laser beam shots of the players.  Not to mention the great defensive plays and huge saves of the goaltenders. I work with my son on being a creative hockey player, to make creative passes and creative plays.  Some of the creative things he tries are just a thing of beauty to watch.  It brings a smile to my face. But you know what’s funny is that quite often when a talented player makes a super creative play, an opposing player can get embarrassed which can lead to a cheap shot or even a fight in some leagues.  I’ve experienced opposing coaches make comments to “get that kid” after “that kid” made a great play or scored a nice goal.  We need a paradigm shift in the mentality of coaches, players and the powers that be in hockey. #PromoteCreativity

Having said that, hockey still needs players like the Dave Semenkos, George Parros’, Bob Proberts, Matthew Tkachuks of the game.  These players were tough and could play the game of hockey, yet they are often remembered as fighters or “goons”. Many fans probably remember Matthew Tkachuk’s physcial play but how many of you remember this nifty little play from Matthew Tkachuk? Gordie Howe was one of the toughest players ever to play.  He played professional hockey in more decades than any other player in history.  In all of the hockey games he played in. Mr. Hockey only ever had recorded a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” twice in his career.  Point being that fighting really is no longer required.  It doesn’t mean that the players will not play as hard, they might play harder.  Players who decide to take cheap shots will be punished (by penalties, suspensions or hefty fines).

The mentality that fighting and full on body contact needs to happen in hockey is becoming passe.  Concussions and head injuries are a real thing in the NHL.  Steps must be taken to protect the players.  Respect has to be both earned and gained.  I will repeat what I mentioned earlier, The issue of concussions and brain injuries in hockey is a real thing.  It’s time to acknowledge this and move forward in educating and protecting hockey players at all levels.

I will leave you with something that is found on the Hockey Canada website:

Because of the contact nature of the game and the speed with which it is played, the brain is vulnerable to injury. Trauma may occur through direct contact to the head or face or indirectly through a whiplash effect. Injuries to the brain are characterized by an altered state of mind. It is the altered state of mind that is the key thing to look for with any head injury.

NOTE: Children are more sensitive to the effects of a concussion and will need to have a longer period of rest prior to returning to activity and the sport.

Shouldn’t all hockey leagues, NHL included,  take more measures to prevent concussions from happening?


Resources – NHL Concussions and Head Trauma Hockey Study

TSN – 

Parachute Canada: Concussion

Hockey Canada: Concussion Prevention Resource Centre