Hockey needs serious concussion discussion
QUICK — In what sport are you most likely to sustain a concussion? You’re thinking it has to be football, right?
You’re thinking wrong: in a five-year study of 25 NCAA sports published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that from 2009 to 2014, collegiate football players ranked fourth in terms of their risk of sustaining a concussion during practice or competition.
Wrestlers, by a mile, had the highest risk of concussion in collegiate athletics, which makes sense when you consider the lack of meaningful head protection and the very nature of the sport.
What’s most intriguing is what the second and third highest-risk sports are: men’s hockey and women’s hockey, respectively.
Think about that for a second: a women’s hockey player has a higher risk of sustaining a concussion than an NCAA football player.
That’s a staggering statistic and one that should give every Canadian pause right now as we collectively gather around the national television set and revel in the annual holiday tradition that is the world junior hockey championship.
There’s some symmetry to the fact this year’s world juniors coincides with the release of the Will Smith film, Concussion, which portrays one doctor’s long battle to get the NFL to acknowledge what, deep down in our hearts, we’ve all known for a long time: playing football makes football players sick.
The timing is serendipitous, of course, because if football is bad for football players, the NCAA study would seem to suggest hockey is even worse for hockey players. And yet — crickets. Yes, there are strict concussion protocols in hockey that never existed previously. And yes, there is a general awareness of the issue in hockey that never existed in the old days, when a helmetless player would be described as getting his bell rung and the cameras would catch him on the bench taking a whiff of smelling salts moments before heading back out for his next shift.
Spectacular But let’s be honest — we, as Canadians, still generally regard concussions as a football problem. And when we do talk about the issue at all in the context of hockey, it’s usually only because something spectacular has made the news: yet another former hockey enforcer has killed himself or some sickening hit has forced us to pay attention.
Last weekend, it was the stomachchurning hit on Sweden’s William Nylander at the world juniors that got everyone talking. Nylander was the leading scorer in the American Hockey League this season — and a top prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs — and you couldn’t help but wonder while watching the replays if his future, on and off the ice, is now a little bit dimmer.
Because not only is hockey bad for hockey players, there are some who think it’s even worse for young hockey players.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the Will Smith film, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he called for a serious discussion about the wisdom of allowing young athletes to play contact sports at all.
Although the article was titled Don’t Let Kids Play Football, Omalu made clear he was also talking about other contact sports, including hockey:
“Over the past two decades it has become clear that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports like football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and boxing place athletes at risk of permanent brain damage,” wrote Omalu.
“Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?”
Why? Because if we don’t play contact sports for fun as kids, we won’t play contact sports for a living as adults. Or, for that matter, watch them. And there’s a multibillion-dollar professional sports and entertainment industry in North America set up to ensure that never, ever happens.
No one seriously thinks we’re ever going to ban kids from playing contact sports. And it’s not even clear we should, even among the professionals in the field. The New York Times published another op-ed just last week by pediatric-neurologist Steven Rothman, who says parents of young athletes don’t need to panic, citing an absence of any meaningful scientific evidence that kids playing contact sports for a short period of time face the same risks of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy as the adults who’ve played for a long period of time.
The flip side to that argument, of course, is there’s also currently no meaningful evidence there isn’t such a risk.
That will come as cold comfort to all the hockey parents in this town and this country, who’d surely like to be able make potentially life-altering decisions with their kids based on something more than, ‘So, do you feel lucky?’
Let’s close with this: I was one of the few people in the house on Boxing Day when Mark Scheifele collided with Andrew Ladd during Winnipeg Jets practice at the MTS Centre.
The collision occurred during a routine drill, but it was clear the moment Scheifele went down with a sickening thud this was not a routine collision. Bleeding from his head, the Jets training staff slowly guided one of the team’s brightest stars to the bench.
As they did, Scheifele tilted his head up to where I was sitting in the stands and for a brief moment, I swear our eyes locked. But while I saw him, the vacant stare Scheifele returned suggested he didn’t see me.
The early prognosis is Scheifele will be out of the Jets lineup at least a week with a concussion. If he’s lucky.
Jets defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba celebrate after Trouba scored his second goal of the game against the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday night.