New Concussion Protocol in NHL Angers Some Players

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A. Ilyas Akbari

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Shareholder at firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, P.C.

Serving Los Angeles, CA

Free initial consultation, Fixed fees available

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If people weren’t paying attention to the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) new concussion protocol before, they certainly are since Connor McDavid, a star Edmonton Oilers player, was pulled from the game on December 4, 2016. McDavid took a hard fall during the second period of a game against the Minnesota Wild, and touched his chin as he stood up again. He says it was a natural instinct to reach for his mouth, but it was also a visual cue to spotters, recently put in place by the NHL, that indicated McDavid needed to be pulled for a concussion test. Edmonton fans—and McDavid—were upset about the decision, but many feel it’s the sign of positive progress in a sport that focuses more on toughness, than the risks associated with repeated head injuries.

A No Tolerance Policy on Concussions 

Hockey is known for being a rough sport, and the players are celebrated for being able to withstand whatever hits come their way during games. What they might face at the end of their careers, however, can be much harder to endure.

Repeated head injuries, including concussions, have been linked to increased risk of Parkinson’s, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or dementia, and, in the past, little emphasis was placed on monitoring such head injuries. But, as the NHL faces lawsuits from former players (like Dan LaCouture) alleging that the organization knew those facts, and did not try to prevent the occurrences or protect players properly, it’s working to change its reputation.

Under the new concussion protocol, which was announced in 2011 and updated in 2016, players who demonstrate one of the signs of concussion must be pulled from the game. That sign might be as simple as a vacant stare after direct or indirect head trauma or clutching their head (like McDavid’s mouth grab), or as severe as lying motionless on the ice.

The concussion calls are made by concussion spotters both at the individual arenas and the centralized New York office. The spotters, when at the individual arenas, are hired by the home teams; the centralized spotters are based in New York, employed by the NHL, and monitor the games on television. When the centralized spotters see a warning sign, they have the authority to remove a player from the game, even if it’s met with protests from the player or his team.

For fans fretting about what the new concussion protocol could mean for playoff games, there’s good news. Though a concussion spotter will remove a player if they see one of the signs, the player can potentially return to the game—as long as they’re cleared as concussion-free and healthy by the team physician or athletic trainer.

Despite the fact that Oilers fans, and McDavid himself, were upset when he left the game for his concussion check, many in the industry say that the reaction is a good sign. If officials are going to start emphasizing player safety over the outcome of a game, there’s bound to be a few people upset. Ultimately, however, the stakes are too high to avoid the irritation.

The Great One Gets on Board with New Concussion Protocol

Some players have voiced their concerns over the new concussion protocol and what it could mean as the season winds down, but one of the most famous hockey players of all time approves of it.

Speaking at a board meeting of league owners and NHL Board of Governors, Wayne Gretzky announced his approval of the new regulations.

“When I played – one of my kids asked me if I ever got a concussion – I can honestly tell you I don’t even know,” Gretzky said “Because in those days they’d say, ‘Take two aspirin tonight, tomorrow you’re going to skate for an hour and we’re going to sweat it out of you.’ That’s what we did.”

Though Gretzky, who is a partner and vice-chairman of the Edmonton Oilers, admitted that people will be unhappy when great players get pulled from the ice (as was the case with his team’s McDavid), he said those are the rules that players and fans need to live with.

Adding to the endorsement for the change in concussion regulations, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that he’s heard nothing negative from his ownership group.

“Actually, everybody thinks the spotter program is working great, just as it was intended,” Bettman said at the board of governors meeting.

Lawsuits Pending for NHL

Many professional sports associations face allegations of negligence when it comes to head injures—the National Football League recently reached a settlement worth as much as $1 billion for former players—but the NHL has garnered headlines recently with revelations of emails that indicate more knowledge on the dangers of concussions than they’ve opened up to in the past. The NHL emails about the concussion issue include communication between high ranking NHL officials (all the way up to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly), and allegedly reference hockey fights and link them to concussions and depression as well as statements that the NHL was not in the business of making the game safer.

Aware of the mental damage that can be inflicted by repeated head injuries, more than 100 retired NHL players have joined together in a class-action lawsuit against the NHL. They’re seeking medical care and a monitoring regime for all living retired hockey players, but it will do little for the families of players who have lost loved ones as a result of their repeated trauma or who are faced with family members that will never be the same mentally.

Stricter concussion rules, like the new concussion protocol, may irritate fans in April, but it will prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated, and that’s something that many hockey lovers feel is worth the frustration.

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