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Mike Babcock's opinions on concussions proves the NHL has an ignorance problem

If the legendary Maple Leafs coach doesn't understand them, how many do?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you're wondering just how much of a hill the NHL has left to climb when it comes to concussion awareness around the league, look no further than one of the sport's best coaches.

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock completed his 1,000th career game this week, and was mingling with reporters after the game when the topic of concussions came up. That's no surprise. Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman is all over the news in the hockey world after he slammed a referee to the ice after he suffered a concussion. Even though they admitted he had a concussion, the league suspended him for 20 games, bringing the NHL's entire concussion protocol process into question.

Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star wrote up an excellent column on Babcock's disappointing comments that highlight just how backwards Babcock's thinking is on the concussion issue. Let's go over a few comments that stood out to him.

First, Babcock implied that concussed players know when they're concussed better than trainers:

"Well, I think when a player says he's okay to play and keeps playing, he's okay to play," Babcock said.

That's completely false. You don't have to be a neuroscientist to understand players with suspected concussions aren't capable of diagnosing themselves.

Look, I just Googled "concussion symptoms" and figured out what the Mayo Clinic recommends:

Experts recommend that an athlete with a suspected concussion not return to play until he or she has been medically evaluated by a health care professional trained in evaluating and managing concussions.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says symptoms might not show up for hours or days. The University of Pittsburgh recommends players don't return to the game as soon as a concussion is suspected by health professionals.

I didn't really need to even search for that information because it's 2016 and pretty much common knowledge that players can't be relied on to diagnose themselves for concussions. That the NHL's best coach doesn't know that isn't exactly comforting.

But that wasn't even his worst comment.

"I put an unbelievable amount of duress on my poor trainer when he's taking some player off the ice who should be killing the next penalty," Babcock said. "You have no idea how kind I am during that interaction."

Yes, Babcock is implying that he pressures his trainers to allow potentially concussed players to get back on the ice immediately. Now, Babcock clarified that comment to reporters on Friday:

The trainer and the doctor are under unbelievable pressure from the player and the coach when these things happen. And we can all live in a fantasy world and think that we don't want them to keep playing. When a player is hardly bumped at all, and you think he shouldn't be going to the quiet room for 15 minutes because you need him in the game, in the heat of the action you want him to play. I think that's a pretty normal thing. And the player wants to play.

We all know we have to protect the players. But we have multiple people do to it...because I'd have everyone out there playing all the time. Because I'm the coach. We have people to do that so guys like me are protected from myself.

So you see where he's trying to come from there. It's not that he overrules the training staff, it's that the system is in place so his natural inclination as a competitive coach to send players back out is overruled by the training staff there to protect the players. His point is that players and coaches aren't bred to back down and be cautious when they're hurt. The opposite is true.

But does that excuse coaches pressuring trainers when a concussion is suspected? Of course not. That is a fundamental breakdown in whatever concussion protocol the NHL has put into place. Just as players shouldn't have the right to decline a concussion test, coaches shouldn't have the right to influence trainers' decisions when a concussion is possible. You might as well ditch the concussion spotters and pretense of a protocol all together if that's the case.

And it really speaks to the archaic, macho mind set that undermines concussion prevention and treatment across most sports. If the player can still skate and play then he needs to get back out there. Suck it up. The win is all that matters.

That particular mind set is especially ingrained in hockey, a sport that prides itself on toughness and playing through injury for the sake of the team. We're talking about a sport where Gregory Campbell once killed off an entire penalty with a broken leg because it was the playoffs. And he was celebrated for it. He's a cult hero in Boston.

So, if you can't see the injury, no wonder Mike Babcock sees no problem with pressuring trainers to put a dazed player back on the ice. That's an attitude deeply bred into the sport. But if coaches are getting away with that, the NHL isn't doing a good enough job of protecting its players from themselves or their coaches.

And finally, the kicker quote:

"On our team, when someone is unconscious or dazed or looks like they're supposed to go to -- what do they call it? -- the dark room or whatever. I mean, some of these things aren't even anything. They're going to a dark room? I don't quite get that," said Babcock.

Again, a fundamental aspect of concussions flies way over Babcock's head. Sensitivity to light is one of the most common symptoms of concussions. Knowledge like that is something a simple seminar or training video would cover. Perhaps the NHL hasn't even done its due diligence in teaching coaches what to be aware of.

Babcock's comments are so disheartening on so many levels. They only push the sport backwards on a very serious player safety issue. One of the league's most legendary coaches comes off as flippant, dismissive and downright ignorant when asked about how he protects his players from an injury that could destroy their post-NHL lives.

It's starting to sound like the NHL hasn't even scratched the surface of spreading concussion awareness across the league. And players (and even referees) are already paying for it.

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