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NHL Concussions: Hockey Needs Better Prevention, Not Better Treatment

The list goes on: Sidney Crosby, Milan Michalek, Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux. Concussions are decimating the NHL, but what can be done? It's not a matter of treatment, writes Bruce Ciskie. It's a matter of prevention.

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The NHL was already missing enough men to concussions.

In the last few days, we've seen guys like Sidney Crosby, Milan Michalek, Claude Giroux, and Jeff Skinner shut down because of head inhuries. The Wild shut down Guillaume Latendresse during Wednesday's game against Chicago because of post-concussion symptoms, and they're still keeping an eye on Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who took a hard hit from Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian Tuesday night -- one that inexplicably didn't even lead to a phone call from the "Department of Player Safety" to Bogosian, much less a suspension.

Bouchard has a history of concussions, having missed 81 games a year ago because of one.

(I'm admittedly bitter about the Bogosian hit, because it's incomprehensible to me that Bogosian didn't even get called on the proverbial carpet to answer for what he did. Meanwhile, Bouchard had to sit out two games for accidentally high-sticking a guy in the face during a battle earlier this season. It seems that while Brendan Shanahan is doing a pretty good job in general, he's struggling to deal with plays that don't involve contact to the head.)

If that wasn't bad enough, this news came from the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period of their Thursday game against Montreal.

"After consultation with respected concussion specialists Dr. Joseph Maroon and Dr. Micky Collins, it is the opinion of both doctors that Chris is suffering from severe post concussion syndrome. It is the recommendation of Doctors Maroon and Collins that Chris not return to play for the Philadelphia Flyers for the remainder of the 2011-12 season or playoffs.  Chris will continue to receive treatment and therapy with the hope that he can get better."

A bombshell, to say the least. Very sobering news, as we're dealing with a guy who's approaching 40 years of age, meaning his recovery is even more uncertain than Crosby's was (he's 14 years younger than Pronger).

While one prominent NHL agent -- Allan Walsh -- is calling out the league for its stance on player safety, the NHL continues to say it's doing all it can.

"Clearly, the NHL is in the throes of a concussion epidemic," Walsh said Thursday. "Only time will tell how severe the long-term health ramifications will be for concussed NHL players. With the economic incentive to make NHL hockey more exciting, the league worked diligently to increase the speed of the game. With increased speed necessarily comes increased collision.

"The results as it relates to player safety are self evident."

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly scoffed at that suggestion.

"For people to suggest that the last seven to 10 days and the experience we've had and some of the names that are out should somehow materially alter our approach to this issue is ridiculous," he said.

On his weekly radio show Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also addressed the topic.

"We know that concussions are a serious issue. We're doing our best to be very proactive in terms of diagnosis and treatment."

"Even if you're watching 24/7 last night, you see how seriously our protocols now have the teams reacting when somebody takes a head hit. We're not minimizing it and I'm not disputing or arguing with the New York Times, but a number of people have made the same observation to me that the last caller did that it seems to be unduly negative. I'm not weighing in. we'll move on."

"Some of the things we've done, by to going all Plexi on the glass, we've softened the environment. By having the diagnosis and return to play protocols and baseline testing. By making players go to the quiet room so that there's not a risk of multiple concussions in a a short period of time. The rule changes we've made – what Brendan Shanahan's doing on supplemental discipline – these are all things that we're doing to try and react and be proactive because it's something that's serious. It's important and people are working on it every day."

No, I don't think this is a time for the NHL to overreact. Actually, I tend to agree with the commissioner. The league has taken some positive steps.

However, the NHL has a problem, and it needs to address this problem before it gets out of control.

People have cracked wise about the league's concussion protocol, but I don't think treatment is the problem, nor do I believe the "Quiet Room" is a bad idea or an ineffective way of dealing with a concussion. The problem isn't treatment or diagnosis.

It's prevention.

What happens when Skinner, for example, is diagnosed with a concussion is not a major issue. There are no indications guys aren't getting the care they need.

But whether it's equipment, the speed of the game, or something else altogether, the NHL needs to take a long, hard look at every possible cause of all these concussions. The bottom line is that the NHL can ill afford the perception that it isn't doing enough.

In the NFL, the Cleveland Browns are dealing with that perception right now. Team president Mike Holmgren had to answer questions about how his people responded to a blow to the head of quarterback Colt McCoy last week, a blow that caused a concussion. McCoy was allowed to return to the game, but couldn't remember the hit after the game.

The NHL isn't being criticized (yet) for players being allowed to play despite what appeared to be clear evidence of a possible concussion. Instead, the NHL's problem is what looks like a rash of concussions in a short time, with some of them coming to high-profile, star players. The hits on Michalek (for sure) and Crosby (maybe) came from teammates, so this isn't a Rule 48 issue or anything like that.

It's not a "Brendan Shanahan needs to crack down" sort of thing.

Everything needs to be in play. We might not like changes made to the speed of the game, but if that's the problem, there are solutions that hopefully aren't intrusive. The players might not like changes to equipment, but if it's in the name of safety, it must be looked at.

It's a complex situation, one that doesn't have an easy solution. But the NHL can't rest on its laurels, convinced it's done enough. Had the league done enough, its leading goal-scorer (Michalek), point producer (Giroux), and two of its most visible players (Crosby and Pronger) likely wouldn't be all on the shelf for the same reason, with no end in sight.