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The Culture of Concussions in Hockey

The Culture of Concussions in Hockey

The brain is the human body’s most important organ. Yet concussions remain one of the most prevalent issues across all levels of hockey. The failure of parents and coaches to recognize concussions at a young age could be the reason athletes feel they can play through head injuries.

Earlier this month, brain injuries, such as concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), returned to the forefront of hockey discussions after a series of tweets from retired NHL player Daniel Carcillo.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 2015, Carcillo retired from playing professional hockey and established the 'Chapter 5 Foundation', which is dedicated to helping players who are struggling with post-concussion syndrome, anxiety, or depression.

You don't have to scroll very far on his timeline to see the how vocal and passionate the 33-year-old is in trying to promote concussion and CTE research.

Carcillo tweeted that he will be donating his brain to Dr. Ted Carrick and the Carrick Institute after he passes away for "study and further understanding of the consequences of traumatic brain injury."

That understanding is vital. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease - meaning that once its progression has begun, it will continually worsen for the rest of a person’s life - that is found in people who have suffered multiple head injuries. Symptoms of the condition include behavioral, mood, and cognitive problems and often leads to either dementia or death.

Part of what makes CTE complicated to manage is that, unlike a broken arm, symptoms do not surface until years after the injuries and can not be diagnosed until after death. In that respect, the condition can be thought of as the cumulative result of multiple head traumas, rather than an injury stemming from a specific incident.

As per the Mayo Clinic - a medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota - there is no treatment for CTE.

When concussions in the big four North American sports are discussed, the conversation almost always begins and ends with the NFL. With good reason - the NFL saw an increase in concussions of nearly 16 per cent this season from last season. 

Those numbers are staggering, but to their credit, the NFL has continued to take strides towards trying to limit concussions in the game, such as the helmet rule – “a foul is given out if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

That rule was implemented at the start of the 2017 season and after seeing concussions continue to rise in the sport, the league has implemented an ejection policy to go along with it.

Here is a video explaining the rule in further detail.

According to Carcillo the NHL has yet to recognize the dangers of head trauma and the effects it can have on players.

In an article on TSN, Rick Westhead reported that the NHL has tried to attack the link between hockey and CTE in the NHL concussion lawsuit, by claiming that people who haven’t played contact sports have wound up suffering from the disease. 

This does give the feeling that the NHL showing their true colours in their failure to recognize this link.

But perhaps it also speaks to the general mentality around the sport of hockey, the ‘walk it off’ thought process towards head injuries.

A few weeks ago I worked as a colour commentator at a hockey tournament that featured some of the best players aged 10-11 across the world. These kids were outstanding talents. It was an invite-only tournament and featured children from Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, the United States, and Canada.

In one game a certain play caught my attention – two players on the same team collided full speed at the blue line. The principal point of contact was the head, and one player also made contact with his head on the ice. He was down for a little while and then was helped off the ice by his teammate.

This seemed like the right thing to do - it would give him a chance to get looked at and have the extent of his injury determined. There were roughly 30 seconds left in the second period, and there were no lengthy intermissions at the tournament. Yet somehow the player returned before the start of the third.

During his next shift, it was apparent that he was a step slower than he had been before the collision. He tripped another player and the momentum from lunging forward sent him barrelling into the boards, he came up favouring his head.

As he sat in the penalty box he removed his helmet and his gloves, and began crying, holding the side of his head.

Now, I’m by no means a medical expert, but I didn’t need to be to see that he was - at the very least - showing concussion-like symptoms and he probably should have been pulled out of the game.

When he returned to the bench, the coaches said nothing to him. His mom came down and attempted to pull him out of the game. The coaches refused, and she relented.

This sort of mentality speaks to hockey as a whole. We put so much focus on injuries occurring a pro level that we ignore those that happen when the players are young.

After the game, my colleague and I decided to with some parents to see if they had noticed the injury. We received the same answer along the lines of “He’ll be fine, kids cry all the time.”

That may be true, but after covering upwards of 15 games throughout the course of the tournament, this was the only incident of a player crying.

If we as adults don’t understand and can’t properly recognize concussions, how do we expect athletes not to ignore or try to play through them, especially as the games begin to mean more to them?

If athletes feel that concussions are something they are meant to play through, they will ignore the signs. In order for head injuries to be properly diagnosed at all levels, parents need to educate themselves and their children on the dangers of playing through head trauma.

Edit: Shortly after writing this article I suffered a concussion playing hockey in a non-contact men's league - perhaps the other player simply forgot the non-contact part of it. 

I had been lucky to have never had a concussion in all my years of playing, which may have resulted in the damage being less severe. But it still sucked having to deal with the symptoms and I can not imagine what suffering multiple ones on a consistent basis would feel like. 

Hopefully people like Carcillo can help to educate the NHL and the hockey world on brain trauma. 

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