The Brain, Hockey and Concussions

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By Alex Briggs.

The Brain. Arguably the most delicate and Important organ in the Human body. Encased within (on average for a male) a 6.5mm thick skull, it is hardly a tough nut to crack.  From Sid the Kid to Pascal Morency. It happens to the biggest stars in the game as well as those less known, but this doesn’t make concussions less of a concern depending on how well known the player is.

Hockey is a fast paced, big hitting, adrenaline fuelled sport that takes place inside its own small rink. With modern players eclipsing the 20mph mark when at full speed, matched with the giant 6’8″ figure of Zdeno Chara, hits are becoming more and more damaging.

I am in no way suggesting that all checks and hits should be banned, I am merely raising the concern on concussion injuries.

The latest case of a severe concussion injury (to my knowledge) would be that of Pascal Morency of the Sheffield Steelers. The Sheffield Steelers of the EIHL (UK) acquired little tough guy Pascal Morency in the 2014/15 off-season to add a little grit and hassle to the roster. His stay would be short lived after only icing for 2 of the 15 games he was in Sheffield for.

After sustaining an injury against the Cardiff Devils in game 1, Morency sat out until the Steelers paid a visit to the Edinburgh Capitals. With the Steelers 10-2 up in the third period, Morency received a ‘reckless’ check from behind which would result in dizziness and blurred vision for the Steelers man. Typical symptoms of concussion.

Morency has a troubled history with injuries. A tragic fall in his flat whilst playing in Croatia left him with a fractured skull, described by doctors as a ‘Life-threatening’ injury. That saw his season cut short as he had to recover from such an event. Add the fall to his role as an enforcer and you don’t have a very good mix. Dropping the gloves with ‘Tough’ guys from opposition teams would result in various blows to the head which must have been a serious concern.

Fast forward three years and after the hit in the game against Edinburgh, concern for Morency’s health was evidently high. Concussion, caused by g-forces that rock the brain in an aggressive manner to and fro, is always a matter of great concern. Checks from behind, checks to the head and an accidental collision at such a high impact can cause these g-forces to drastically damage the brain. Helmets are worn, padding is essential and the Ref’s are all out on the ice to help protect the players and keep them safe. But what is really being done to prevent concussions?

As a result of the hit to Pascal Morency, he has now retired from the sport. This individual check was not the main cause of his retirement but went some way to simplifying the decision for both club and player. Introducing DOPS (Department of Player Safety) into the EIHL this season was a decision based on attempting to protect players more and penalise those who act recklessly. Video evidence, very similarly to the NHL, goes to a special neutral panel, who view all evidence presented to come to a conclusive decision. This only penalises the player responsible for the hit but still does not prevent certain incidents from happening.

Take Madison Square Garden, playing in front 18,000 hockey fans on a Saturday night, you’re team behind by a goal going into the third after having no luck for the whole night, and what are you going to do? Look for emotion, use your adrenaline, put in that extra 10% to find that game tying goal. Your heart begins to beat faster as the adrenaline pumps round your body, but this makes you more prone to silly, unnecessary decisions as emotions ride high. You look to make a check in the corner to give your linemates life, the opponent changes direction suddenly, you go flying in and CRASH. You sandwich his head between the boards and he’s out cold

The outcome was never meant, but the result was inevitable. A 30 game ban and a 15k fine, whilst the other guy is on his way to hospital with life changing injuries. The point I’m trying to make is these incidents are becoming more and more common, the results a good 95% of the time are merely accidental, but they occur so frequently. Prevention is becoming harder as players get bigger, stronger and quicker, but aren’t the fights and the hits what hockey is all about? The thrill of a good centre ice hip-check, the crowd on their feet banging the glass as the Flames and Canucks brawl through the opening 11 minutes.

Whatever your view, this is real hockey.

Introduce DOPS, introduce new disciplinary results but checks and fights will always be in the game. However, a concussion is just so life changing and so lethal that something, whatever it is, has to be done.

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