Could Women's Hockey Teach The NHL A Lesson About Concussions?

wisconsin mercyhurst women's ncaa hockey

Believe it or not, the concussion issue is more rampant in women's NCAA hockey than in the NHL or even NCAA football. Could the boys learn a thing or two from the women's game?

It's been two months since Sidney Crosby suffered his concussion(s), and despite the fact that there are plenty of other promising and prominent players in the NHL suffering from similar symptoms as Crosby, change to the NHL rules will only come because of Crosby's star power. After all, the short-sightedness of NHL marketing put all of their eggs in Crosby's basket, and now that basket is now out indefinitely.

But here's an interesting twist in the hockey-concussion connection: Did you realize that when it comes to NCAA hockey, women are almost twice as likely to suffer a concussion than men? It's even more common than in NCAA football

The concussion rate in N.C.A.A. women's ice hockey is 2.72 per 1,000 player hours. For men's ice hockey it's 1.47 per 1,000. Even for N.C.A.A. football, the rate is 2.34 per 1,000 -- lower than it is for the women on the ice.

How can that be, you might ask, since women's hockey doesn't allow body checking? (Body checking is actually a penalty in women's hockey, which doesn't mean that the game isn't physical, but that's another story.) The doctors and researchers have a theory.

"Unanticipated collisions tend to cause concussions," [University of North Carolina researcher Jason] Mihalik said.

That makes sense, since Crosby suffered his (initial?) concussion from a seemingly accidental break-in-play clip from David Steckel during the 2011 Winter Classic, and Gary Bettman said during the All-Star break in January that while concussions are up in the League, that increase seems to be thanks to "inadvertent collisions."

That would seemingly encourage a rule change in women's hockey to allow body checking into the game. Women do know how to check, as their coaches will teach them how, but since women's teams can be few and far between, they tend to play boys teams. In a mixed game like that, it's decided upon before the game whether checking is allowed. It almost always is. 

Even still, this appears to be the primary cause of concussions. Most injuries in hockey come down to the person who's injured just not being aware, and therefore are unable to anticipate the hit or collision. I've seen it time and again. Concussions are no exception.

Equipment might also be a problem. The belief is held that the presence of a helmet leads to more physical play, and thus, more potential for head injuries. In women's lacrosse, they don't wear helmets, but they also have a stringent head shots rule. 

Contact with the head is so off limits that accidental intrusion with stick or body within seven inches of the head - an area known as the halo - is a major foul. Even shooting with a defender in line with the goal is illegal.

Even so, girls' lacrosse does see its share of concussions, mostly on accidental stick-to-head contact, collisions and falls. According to research by Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, not only does the sport have the third-highest rate of concussion among female scholastic sports (behind soccer and basketball), but its in-game rate is only about 15 percent less than the rougher male version.

In hockey, that'd obviously be a dangerous proposition, what with high sticks and pucks flying around. It also happens in lacrosse, but not at the same speed. Even if wearing a helmet incurs a higher rate of concussions, it'd still be more beneficial to keep them rather than get rid of them because of the additional risks.

We've all heard stories from back in the day about guys getting concussions, scoring a hat trick, and not remembering any of it. Not wearing a helmet doesn't guarantee you anything, but perhaps it does make you more aware of what's going on around your head.

It seems to me that the focus ought to be on awareness of your surroundings. Athletes of any stripe have great peripheral vision, and professional athletes are no exception. Perhaps focusing more on that, along with a more stringent enforcement of revamped rules, would limit the number of concussions.

The NHL can take their lessons from other sports -- and from women's sports, in particular. While the NHL may have a more comprehensive plan for preventing, testing, recognizing, and treating concussions than probably every other sport in North America, it can still be improved upon.

They should take inspiration where they can find it -- be it a male or female sport.

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