Sunday, October 2, 2011

NHL Getting It Right More Than The NFL In Regards To Illegal Shots To The Head

The NHL means business when it comes to head injuries.  After failing to properly punish players for years for intentional shots to the head, their biggest first step was in realizing how big of a problem it was causing.  Three major issues in the past year have seemingly opened up NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's eyes:

Photo: Shaun Best/Reuters
  • Sydney Crosby's months-long rehab for a very serious concussion that he sustained back in December.  A concussion that wasn't properly diagnosed and treated at the time, and was further compounded when he was hit in the head again a week later in January.  Crosby's concussion symptoms were so severe as to prevent him from playing the rest of the season.  His career is still in jeopardy depending on how he reacts to future hits.  This would badly hurt the NHL as Crosby is one of hockey's most recognizable players, no matter if you love or hate him.
  • The deaths of several NHL players in the off-season that could conceivably be traced back to chronic traumatic brain injury from their playing days. Two of the players (Tom Cavanagh and Rick Rypien) died of suicide and one died after a fatal mix of pain drugs (Derek Boogaard).  All three were current players, and considered "enforcers" on their team: players that usually are the ones to dole out the biggest punishing hits.  Also Wade Belak, a recently retired player, committed suicide in August after suffering from depression.  Symptoms of CTE are known to be depression, drug abuse, and headaches that increase in severity with the progression of CTE.
  • Former enforcer Bob Probert, who died of heart failure in July of 2010, was found to have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  This chronic degenerative brain disease is the root of the recent effort by the NFL to treat concussions more seriously.  Probert is the first, but most certainly not the last, contemporary hockey player to have been found to have CTE.  Most likely he is the first of many as illegal shots to the head have become commonplace in the NHL over the past several years.
The best step that the NHL made was in instituting Rule 48 last year and then strengthening it this off-season.  This rule prohibited lateral or backside hits to the head when the head appears to be the primary target.  The NHL allowed the players to get used to the rule before they brought the hammer down this pre-season with their next best step.

In 2009, the NHL hired former Detroit Red Wings Captain Brendan Shanahan as the VP of Hockey and Business Development.  Shanahan is leading the way in trying to clean up the game by being the man responsible for implementing suspensions for Rule 48 violations. 

So far, he's been doing just that.  Several players are facing suspensions for violating Rule 48, but the biggest change the NHL is doing is putting Shanahan front and center in explaining his suspensions.  In a way that the NFL is severely lacking, the NHL is shining in these videos.  In the past, if you disagreed with a Rule 48 call, all you got to explain it for you was a brief statement by the NHL.

Now Shanahan makes a video to explain each violation, showing and explaining what the player did wrong.  Not only can the fans understand, but the players will have a better understanding of what they will no longer be able to do.

It's far more than what the NFL has offered players.  The NFL would do well to pick a player rather than commissioner Roger Goodell to institute and explain suspensions.  

One last bit: all you hockey fans who love your fights.  Expect that to be curtailed in the near future.  The NHL doesn't know for sure how much affect fighting has on these brain injuries, but it most certainly contributes.  Brendan Shanahan is indicating that he's looking at that as well.  

Photo: Bill Greenblatt/UPI

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