For NHL Players, Concussions Last a Lifetime

New research shows the NHL has a serious concussion problem.

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Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) skates in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets in Pittsburgh Thursday, March 28, 2013. The Penguins won 4-0.

The National Hockey League's lockout-shortened 2013 season is winding down, with several teams scrambling to pin down the final few playoff spots. (Sadly, my New Jersey Devils are not among them.) But while this season will almost certainly be remembered for its abbreviated length, it also highlighted a problem with which the NHL will have to do more to grapple, and sooner rather than later: concussions.

Reining league MVP Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins missed four games after an early season concussion, putting him on a long list of players who have had to spend time recovering from head injuries this year. As the New York Times reported, in just two weeks in February, 11 NHL players sat out due to concussions or concussion-like symptoms. Last year, according to a count by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, nearly 90 players missed time because of head injuries, for a total of 1,697 man-games lost.

But these statistics don't sufficiently quantify the human cost to players who live with concussions as a reality of their day-to-day work and who surely receive blows to the head that are never formally diagnosed as concussions but still leave long-lasting effects. Case in point, a study by researchers at McGill University and the University of Toronto that was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology gives a gut-wrenching glimpse into what NHL athletes live with once their playing days are over. 

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The former athletes, who all retired due to their concussions, were only identified by pseudonyms. One told the researchers, "There aren't too many days that go by where I don't have some type of discomfort in terms of headaches or head pressure." Another said, "I find that I can't remember phone numbers. You can tell me a phone number five times and I can repeat it five times, yet I'll still have trouble remembering it."

A different player added, "I use[d] to love to read.  But, you know, longer than a half-hour, I still can't do it … I'm less tired after going to the gym than I am after reading for a  half-hour." He also admitted to contemplating suicide due to the constant, lingering effects of his head injuries:

I was at the point where I'd be driving along and would think about going full speed and hitting the wall. Just end it. The pain was unbelievable. I had headaches every day for a minimum of three and a half years.  Not just a little headache where you want to take an aspirin. I almost wanted to scream.

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To its credit, the NHL has tried in the last few years to design new protocols for treating players who receive concussions and to mete out harsher punishments to those players delivering careless hits to their opponents' heads. But there are still problem with the league's approach when it comes to head injuries.

For instance, the NHL still allows players who were concussed to be described as working through an "upper body injury." And while education for coaches and other team personnel is supposedly increasing, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs theorized earlier this month that concussions are caused by players' brains swelling due to the helmets they wear. (Yes, really.) There is no mandatory waiting period before concussed players can return to the ice and no requirement that independent doctors assess players who receive blows to the head.

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While it may not occur as soon as it will in football, hockey will likely experience an existential crisis due to the swathe of concussions it leaves behind unless it takes steps now to lessen the damage. And there are several rule changes it could make.  (For instance, adopting a ban on hits to the head like the one that exists at the collegiate hockey level.)

But it is also necessary to change the way in which concussions are discussed, both by the league and by those who follow it. Another recent study shows that major newspapers have begun to pay more attention to concussions in hockey, but still often treat them as just "part of the game," rather than a problem to be remedied. And until concussions get treated as not a natural part of the competition, but as a threat to the game's very existence, every proposed solution will fall well short.

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