The NHL has a problem. Players know it. Teams know it. Fans know it. Gary Bettman probably even knows it. The NHL cannot get it right when it comes to concussions and getting players off the ice if they have concussion symptoms. This conversation has been ongoing for the several years now and has been highlighted again during the playoffs with Sidney Crosby (among others) who have been in and out of the line-up because of concussions (for more on Crosby check out the article by Gwen de Young here).
The NHL is not the only league that has a problem with concussions. There have been just as many, if not more, problems that the NFL has run into while trying to get players off the field when it comes to concussions and head injuries. Neither of these two leagues looks like it has the ability or the desire to make good decisions in protecting players. While either league may not come out and actually say it, but from the outside perspective both leagues seem happy to let players risk health so that talent can stay in the game. The other side of that argument would say that allowing players to play with concussions will eventually result in the talent having to end their careers early. You could call this a debate that goes in circles but the reality is that the one side is speaking up asking leagues to pay attention to concussions and head injuries while the other side stays silent, makes small changes that are lightly enforced and continues to make money at the expense of players health.
What is the solution? How does the NHL actually help teams and players deal with concussions? It would be wise for the NHL and NFL to look at another pro sports league in North America and ask how they have been able to deal with concussions. Major League Baseball is a non-contact sport and so concussions happening in the MLB are rare in relation to the heavy contact leagues of hockey and football. Yet, somehow baseball has managed to make decisions and move forward to help protect players.
One of the biggest steps forward for baseball was at the start of the 2011 season when they introduced a 7-day Disabled List option for teams to put players on who have a concussion or concussion symptoms. (For more information on the rule change check out this) They actually made a rule change to allow teams to feel more comfortable to give players time to recover. Before this new rule was implemented teams had to decide whether to place the player on the 15-day D.L. (reduced to 10 days at the start of the 2017 season) or leave them on the active roster. This could have put them in a place where they did not want to lose the player for 15 days but needed a player and so it could result in the player being rushed back early. Who would ever have thought a league could make a decision to actually help teams protect players while giving more flexibility to manage while the player recovers. It almost seems like such a good idea that even Bettman would not be able to screw it up (you are right, he’d find a way). Roster crunches can put both NHL and NFL teams in a tough place but providing flexibility for the sake of safety and recovery would be a good step forward.
What about communication? The Pittsburgh Penguins could not get their story straight on whether Crosby had a concussion or not. “He’s out with a upper body injury” is the statement made by teams as players leave games with head injuries. If teams were open about head injuries it would force accountability on the teams to take care of players. Look at the New York Yankees and their game on May 24. Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a concussion on this play early in the game:
— TheRenderMLB (@TheRenderMLB) May 24, 2017
While the game was still happening the P.R. twitter account sent this out after Ellsbury had been removed from the game:
CF Jacoby Ellsbury left tonight's game with a concussion and neck sprain.
— Yankees PR Dept. (@YankeesPR) May 25, 2017
During the game the Yankees let everyone know that Ellsbury had a concussion and was out for the game. He was put on the 7 D.L. the following day. To show that the MLB does not have it all figured out yet, Ellsbury did not leave the game immediately but was pulled after the inning. This is not the only example of teams being straightforward with letting the fans and media know about a concussion.
What if Uncle Gary was willing to listen, change and implement rules surrounding head injuries? What if one of the players that is a healthy scratch could be designated to enter the game if a player is removed from the game by a doctor because of a concussion or concussion symptoms. Could the NHL allow some flexibility for the Injured Reserved List when dealing with a head injury. One might even wonder if the NHL would think about punishments for players that target other players heads, carelessly drive a guy’s head into the boards and maybe even for fighting. It would not take much to make changes to the game in the name of safety while still making decisions that are best for the league (yes Gary, it can be done).
There is a long road ahead in continuing to understand concussions and head injuries but Major League Baseball is leading the charge in helping players and teams deal with these situations. Can the NHL follow that lead and actually make decisions that make sense? Doubtful but we should all continue to hold out hope because if changes are not made we all suffer. It is on the NHL and NHLPA to step up and actually move forward with changes for the better.