Hockey needs se­ri­ous con­cus­sion dis­cus­sion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

paul.wiecek@freep­ress.mb.ca

Twit­ter: @PaulWiecek

TREVOR HA­GAN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Jets de­fence­men Dustin Byfuglien and Ja­cob Trouba cel­e­brate af­ter Trouba scored his sec­ond goal of the game against the Detroit Red Wings Tues­day night.

PAUL WIECEK

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