Concussions in the NHL: Part I

This is the first piece in a series on concussion issues in the National Hockey League. (This post was previously titled CTE in the NHL: Part 1)

The NHL is in the final stretch of its regular season schedule.  It’s the time of year when having healthy players becomes especially critical. Teams are fighting for playoff spots and need their best players to be available to get the highest seed they can. The teams that are already out of it need to maintain some form of morale and assess where they’re at in order to make offseason decisions.

Obviously, the Buffalo Sabres are not contenders for a playoff spot this year – they currently sit in last place in the Eastern Conference, and second last in the league. However, they have been hit with injuries to three of their captains in the past three months.  Zach Bogosian has been out with a hip injury since early January, while Jack Eichel went out a month later with another high-ankle sprain.

But maybe the most dangerous is the injury to Kyle Okposo. The 29-year-old winger was diagnosed with a concussion on March 9th – the result of an accidental collision with Senators forward Bobby Ryan last Thursday. Okposo left the game following the impact, entered concussion protocol, and did not return.

Last March, Okposo suffered some serious health issues that ended up being the result of a concussion.  After what he described as a routine hit in practice, the forward began having mood, sensory, and sleep problems, as well as rapid weight loss. This resulted in his being hospitalized and put in intensive care when he had a severe reaction to sleep medication. He did not finish the season, but recovered over the summer and has been healthy this year up until Thursday.  Though Coach Housley has stated that he has a positive outlook for his associate captain’s return, Okposo now has a history of concussions. This should not be taken lightly and raises concern for possible CTE going forward.

Eleven players around the league have missed significant amounts of time this season due to diagnosed concussions.  And these aren’t just bruisers and fighters. Of these eleven players mentioned above, three of them are goalies….  I think it’s important to say diagnosed concussions because there’s a good chance that there are a number of guys playing through undiagnosed concussions.  These are elite athletes, many of them battling for top roles, that fight through as much as they can in order to play. They’ve been known to hide ailments in order to keep themselves out on the ice, and coaches and medical staff have been known to look the other way.

Typically, when people think of concussions and CTE, they immediately think of football.  Part of this is the nature of the sport. Another part of it is the fact that the NFL had a high profile lawsuit brought against it by former players, which the players arguably won – it resulted in a $1 billion settlement. It also resulted in the NFL agreeing that there is a link between concussions and brain injuries, and eventual CTE.

There is a similar case going through the system brought by over one hundred former NHLers alleging that the League did not do enough to protect them from recurring brain injuries and CTE.  The players argue that the NHL knew, or should have known, about the risks and dangers of concussions, yet, because it had a financial motivation to promote the sport with hard-hitting action and violence, it did not educate the players or work to reduce the risk and number of head injuries they experienced.

The NHL unsurprisingly denies these claims. Not only that, Commissioner Gary Bettman continues to publicly state that the NHL disagrees with the assessment that there is a cause and effect relationship between concussions and CTE. Instead, it is the League’s position that the science on the matter is unsettled.

Does this conflict with steps the NHL has taken to reduce head injuries during games? What about all the rule changes that have been made by the league in an effort to get rid of hits to the head, reduce the instances of boarding hits, and cut down on fighting? What about required concussion protocols and spotters who can pull players off the ice?

If concussions aren’t linked to CTE, and aren’t a long-term problem, why have these rule changes?

(The end portion of this post initially offered the idea that the science on the link between concussions and CTE was settled. It has been edited to reflect that this is not the case.)

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