The Engels Angle: Playoffs have dulled focus on head-shot/concussion issue
Published Friday, May 27, 2011 6:17PM EDT
Montreal Canadiens center Jeff Halpern (15) looks up as Boston Bruins players celebrate the game-winning goal by Nathan Horton during the overtime period of Game 7 in a first-round NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff series in Boston Wednesday, April 27, 2011. The Bruins won 4-3 to win the series. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
MONTREAL - The most prolific discussion points throughout an incredibly entertaining hockey season revolved around head-shots and concussions.
As playoff hockey has increased the already-blistering pace of the game and the intensity has ramped up to an unprecedented level those key talking points have become somewhat moot.
They've become somewhat moot because players are ashamed to sit out the playoffs with dizziness, nausea or lapses in concentration.
Teammates and fans encourage the culture of playing through injury because winning in the playoffs is about courage, and they want their teams to win.
It's not to say that teammates and fans wouldn't accept a player's unwillingness to play due to post-concussion symptoms, but they'll turn a blind eye to the consequences should a player deem himself eligible for the good of the team.
Effects of concussion can last a lifetime
Despite what we know about the devastating effects of concussions, this mentality prevails.
In a conversation with former Canadien Brian Savage he revealed to me that the worst part of having a concussion is that the symptoms are somewhat unnoticeable to the untrained, making it hard to look teammates in the eye when you're sitting on the sidelines in seemingly perfect condition.
That prevalent mentality forced the head-shot/concussion debate to emerge in a more influential sphere at the GM meetings in March.
Just a few weeks before the post-season got under way the general managers emerged from a 3-day summit with a new protocol for players that exhibit signs of suffering a head injury to follow.
The new protocol was implemented immediately and described as follows:
"Starting tonight, players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician. The physician will use the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, motor incoordination or balance problems, a blank or vacant look, slow to get up after a hit to the head, disorientation, clutching of the head after a hit or visible facial injury in combination with another symptom."
Seems pretty clear-cut, but the ambiguity of that protocol has seen several players avoid going to the room at all, and if they do elect to head down the tunnel, many of them have returned to action just a few minutes later, likely claiming the reason they went to the room had nothing to do with concussion symptoms.
Spacek, Halpern likely had concussions
We saw this with Jaroslav Spacek, who missed just a few shifts after Boston's Milan Lucic plowed him head-first into the boards in Game 6.
Spacek was bleeding from his head and seemingly worse for wear as he staggered from the ice to the locker room.
No one in Montreal was aghast to see him on the ice so quickly after the incident.
The automatic assumption was that he either completely embellished the damage done by Lucic's hit (Jack Edwards would certainly advance as much), or that he was absolutely fine.
Jeff Halpern took not one, but two headshots in Game 7 of the series with Boston.
The second one, which he took from Andrew Ference, was extremely similar to the blow Sidney Crosby absorbed in the Winter Classic--care of Dave Steckel; a blow that Crosby was unwilling to treat as a concussion until he played the following game and absorbed another one that knocked him out for the remainder of the season and the entirety of the Penguins seven-game series with the Lightning.
The trainers were trying to convince a clearly dazed Halpern to make his way to the room with them, but Halpern refused and sat on the bench exclaiming he had suffered no ill-effects from the blind-side headshot that had him stumbling all over the ice seconds before.
There were far more Canadiens' fans relieved that Halpern wouldn't be lost to them in the middle of an elimination game than there were fans concerned for Halpern's long-term health.
Playing injured, or playing stupid?
Mike Green played through concussion problems throughout the season, and may have done the same in the playoffs.
Brent Seabrook got his head bashed in by Raffi Torres of the Canucks, twice in the same game.
He missed Games 4 and 5 with an undisclosed injury, only to return for Games 6 and 7.
Torres caught Joe Thornton in Game 4 of the Canucks series with the Sharks, and everyone assumed Thornton only injured his shoulder on the play.
Thornton played in game 5. No one would've forgiven him for missing an elimination game, especially after a career of being a perennial playoff choker.
Concussions aside, any player playing through injury achieves hero status by making any kind of impact on their team's success.
Ryan Kesler's become a Conn Smythe candidate with goals like the one he scored with 13 seconds remaining in Game 5 against the Sharks-- after playing through an obvious leg-injury that should've taken him out of the game in the second period.
That kind of sacrifice is expected of a Stanley Cup contender.
Conversely, Halpern and Seabrook weren't celebrated for their "heroics" after their teams dropped their respective first-round series.
Forget about rewards; what positives can either player possibly draw from those experiences?
Next season, the newly established protocol will likely be more strictly imposed, but no one's willing to suggest it's not up to snuff during the playoffs.
Next season, the league will come down much more severely on head-shot perpetrators, regardless of how many times they've offended (so we're told).
But there are five to eight games remaining on the playoff schedule. How many more of these incidents will we see? How many will go undetected--or worse--unspoken of?
The fans have accepted a culture that the players have perpetuated.
The initial outrage over the proliferation of head-shots and concussions was born of a recognition that this perpetuated culture was based on outdated tradition; a recognition that the consequences were much more dire than anyone cared to admit for far too long.
It's time to bring the issue back into focus, and that starts with the players who have the courage to put their health and quality of life ahead of the team's interest--an easier principle to agree with than it is to adhere to.
But if they begin to make the right choices, they will be supported by teammates and fans, and we can make real progress for the good of the game.