The severity of the injuries varies quite a bit. You'll have a guy who takes a hit the wrong way, has headaches for a few days, then comes back fine. And then you have a guy like Boston Bruins veteran Marc Savard. Poor guy. He's had 3 concussions in the last 2 years. I don't even want to know how many games he's missed due to these injuries. Even worse, he's been shut down for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs (again!) this year. The (again!) was because the same thing happened to him last year.
When Savard's not seeing stars, he's a pretty solid player, playing at a touch-under-point-per-game clip. And this is where the NHL needs to start getting worried about head contact. The point in time in which star players start to get lost for the season should mark the point where little 3-and-4 game suspensions don't cut it anymore. Just a few days ago, we saw (repeat offender) Matt Cooke of the
While I wholeheartedly agree with more severe penalties for both repeat offenders and injury-inducing actions, I have to say that I think most of the blame for these injuries needs to be placed on the NHL and other, lower-level hockey organizations. For instance, I'm a USA Hockey referee. The one rule I dislike is the "Checking From Behind" rule. The rule states that a 2 minute minor and a 10 minute misconduct shall be called. However, if a player is "injured", the referee must impose a 5 minute major and a game misconduct.
But therein lies the problem. What exactly constitutes an injury? I actually did encounter this in a game a few weeks ago: a kid got hit from behind and laid basically motionless for a couple minutes. I talked with my partner and assessed the '5 and game' penalty. Soon after I escorted the assailant off the ice, the player who had been hit got up and skated to the bench under his own power. The team whose player had just been ejected's coach called me over for a chat. When I explained why I gave the player the '5 and game', the coach suggested that from now on when his players were hit from behind, they should lay on the ice for a while to get a more severe penalty called.
I looked at him dumbfounded, and could mutter nothing more than "Well, that's a moral issue, but there's nothing stopping you." That's when I started to realize what's wrong. If a play, like checking from behind or head contact, wants to be removed from the game, penalize it more strictly at the lower levels of hockey. Teach the kids that they can't do this early on. Take away the option for the '2 and 10' penalty and make every hit from behind a '5 and game'. And then also give the referees the option of adding on additional discipline if they see fit. I'd like to see how many kids hit from behind after that.
The other issue, however, then becomes what do you do with players who are injured by freak plays? Take the most prominent case currently in the NHL, Penguins (ironically) star Sidney Crosby. First and foremost, if you know anything about me you know that I can't stand Crosby. But I can relate to what he's going through now, and I really do feel for him. His concussion occurred either by accidentally colliding with a Washington Capitals player (I can't recall who) or by being bumped, and I do mean bumped, into the boards by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. The point is that it was a freak injury. He didn't get leveled from behind, didn't get blindsided, didn't get cheapshotted. Both were clean plays, one was an accident.
I played hockey all through high school, and ultimately stopped playing because I had 3 concussions. After the third, I had headaches for days and went through intermittent bouts of vomiting. It wasn't fun. But I couldn't get mad about it, because I got all 3 on clean plays. The players who checked me did nothing wrong. So what are we supposed to do about cases like these? The answer is obvious: nothing. There's nothing you can do. As the saying goes, shit happens. Sometimes, in a physical sport like hockey, injuries happen. We can't penalize clean plays. Unless you're an emotional hockey mom, in which case the referee is ALWAYS wrong.
So what is the end result of all the above? Well, we will likely never get head injuries completely out of the game - both NHL and NFL. But we can do something to decrease the likelihood that one will occur. Getting the reckless stupidity out of the game, and respect for other players back into the game, at an early age is imperative. Plays like the one Matt Cooke made the other night cannot be tolerated. Some steps have been taken, like the little "STOP" signs that some teams sew onto the back of their jerseys, but clearly not enough.
I don't want to see the day when star players, yes even Crosby, have their careers ended because they've had their bell rung once too much. Sadly, I think that era may be starting this year. I hope Marc Savard recovers fully and quickly, and hope that the NHL starts taking things a lot more seriously. Somehow, though, I'm doubtful that either will happen.