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Some sound thinking concerning brain injuries

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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No matter what the statistics might tell us, the optics are bad and getting worse. The NHL has something wrong with its head, specifically the concussed brains of its rank-and-file stick carriers, and no one is sure what to do about it, or if there is anything that can be done to make an inherently dangerous game substantially less a killing field.

Nothing on the KO front should surprise us anymore, but the hockey Twitterverse exploded Thursday night when the Flyers revealed that captain/hardened warrior Chris Pronger would be shut down for the duration, including the playoffs. Diagnosis: severe postconcussion syndrome. Bruins fans know the drill all too well, given the histories of Patrice Bergeron (now doing very well) and Marc Savard (not expected to resume his career).

Pronger’s move to neuropsych purgatory after missing 11 games came the week after the Penguins said superstar center Sidney Crosby, after playing in only eight games (2-10-12), would need more time out of action. Sid the Kid came back only last month after getting cranked twice within a week at the start of January.

According to multiple reports, the 24-year-old Crosby figures it was an elbow from the Bruins’ David Krejci Dec. 5 that exacerbated his latest woes. Krejci, it should be noted, is tough enough to withstand the daily NHL grind, but he is anything but a mauler. If Crosby can’t withstand Krejci-like knocks, his troubles may be far from behind him, possibly irreparable. At this point, no one would be surprised if, like Pronger, Crosby were to shut it down for the season, rest, and try again come training camp in September 2012.

Headed into weekend action, Pronger and Crosby were joined by fellow brothers of the concussed Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn (both Flyers), along with the high-profile likes of Milan Michalek, the league’s top goal scorer from Ottawa, and Jeff Skinner, the Hurricanes’ scoring whiz who was last season’s Rookie of the Year. The slick Giroux recently topped the list of the game’s top point-getters.

The fact that such talented players are getting concussed brings a brighter, hotter spotlight to a persistent and difficult issue, but brain injuries have to be taken seriously, no matter if the player is a fourth-line plumber or a face of the franchise (see: Crosby, Pronger).

To its credit, the league has paid attention for a while, implementing baseline testing and return-to-work protocols that were ahead of, or at least in lockstep with, other professional leagues. Sadly, it dragged its feet disgracefully, if not negligently, in the days when Colin Campbell was meting out discipline from his corner office at league HQ. Players were egregiously smashed over the head by opponents (see: Matt Cooke’s hit on Savard) and Campbell too often let offenders skate, noting that the league’s rulebook didn’t give him the language or the license to suspend or fine the perpetrators. While he rifled through the pages to find only excuses, and the Lords of the Boards hemmed and hawed, heads remained on sliver platters, and nitwits such as Cooke feasted at the table of wanton destruction. Nice governance.

Again to its credit, the league has since moved Brendan Shanahan into the chief disciplinarian role and also placed him in charge of player safety. Things are improving under Shanahan’s watch, at least from a penance-and-pay standpoint. If the Lords and general managers let him keep up the heat, and the NHL Players Association supports his decisions rather than tosses up picayune objections, then it will become a safer workplace. Nothing gets a player’s attention like lost wages.

There are numerous other ways to dial back on the concussions. Such as:

■ Shoulder pads and elbow pads need to be made smaller and their materials less destructive. In the last 15-20 years, manufacturers have preached improved protection through greater size and granite-like materials. Some of the paraphernalia has been softened. But even when not deliberately used to hurt people, the armor is hurting people.

■ Stiffer penalties on hits to the head. The league last spring finally upgraded the rulebook, making some targeted hits to the head illegal. But brain injuries continue, and it’s increasingly clear that the Lords need to punish all hits to the head. They are in the business of selling violence, and as the game’s fathers they don’t want to give up what sells. As fathers, would they stop selling if these damaged players were their biological sons and not merely their issue of profit?

■ Contrary to myth, people get hurt in hockey fights, often severely, and some suffer concussions. The NHL, when I asked again on Friday, would not reveal statistics on concussions. The game has grown five-fold from its Original Six days. It is a multibillion-dollar industry. The NHL is a tremendous product and will be all the greater when it realizes it can relegate its bar fights strictly to its Board of Governors meetings.

■ When the most recent lockout ended in the summer of 2005, I was among those who saw the need of opening up play, and lauded the idea of taking the red line out of the offside equation. Good idea, bad result. Some of these concussions are because of incredible heads of steam that players gain now through center ice. There has to be a better way to mitigate trapping, grappling tactics in the neutral zone. I am convinced a slower game would diminish concussions. It would also lead to better, more artful puck control and playmaking. Bonus.

■ Finally, the helmet. There has to be something better. And players need to be smarter about wearing their helmets properly, tightly, with fitted mouthguards. NHL icon Mark Messier a few years ago put his name on a Cascade product, its design borrowed from lacrosse. Be it Cascade or a different vendor, it’s time for a better mouse trap.

Some of these suggested fixes, despite varying degrees of pushback from both sides, and even from the audience (what, give up fights?!), are easy to implement. A handful of bright guys could get in a room today and cherry-pick from the list provided here and substantially change the culture of the sport and still maintain its entertainment factor.

When they all finally face the reality and get down to business, let these words be their guiding light: brain injury is not sport.


LA has found its new king

When the Kings were on Causeway Street Monday night, with John Stevens substitute teaching for fired coach Terry Murray, all the talk was that Darryl Sutter would be the new coach of the Crowns. Stevens was still the bench boss last night, with the Kings in Detroit to take on the Red Wings. But Sutter, who was fired a year ago as the Flames’ general manager, has agreed to take the job, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Sutter coached in San Jose when Dean Lombardi, now the Kings’ GM, ran the Sharks. There had been some thought that another NHL club had reached out in hopes of hiring Sutter. But the Times report said Sutter will take over the Kings Tuesday.

Back to where it began

Teemu Selanne, 18-plus years removed from his rookie season with the Jets when he scored 76 goals, made his first return to the city’s new NHL franchise last night. One of the game’s greatest goal scorers, he was shipped to Anaheim midway through his fourth season (1995-96) with the Jets. “I was totally shocked,’’ the Finnish Flash recalled last week. “Two weeks before that trade, the club told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be a big part of our future in Winnipeg.’ ’’ The trade came in February ’96, only weeks before the Jets left town to do business in Phoenix as the Coyotes. “I felt like I failed,’’ said Selanne, now 41 and likely playing his final NHL season in his second tour with the Ducks. “I was from Finland, and no one ever gets traded in Finland.’’

Helmets a fitting choice

Jay Bijeau was an assistant hockey coach for the men’s club squad at the Naval Academy a few years ago when the team, after consulting with the players, opted to buy Cascade helmets in hopes of better protecting the players’ heads. “Two of our guys had concussions at the time,’’ recalled Bijeau, these days a lieutenant commander on the USS Alaska submarine. “We felt it was the way to go.’’ The helmets arrived, soon followed by complaints, the players saying they didn’t like the fit. Twice, said Bijeau, Cascade reps visited and made certain the fit was perfect for each player. Bijeau eventually realized that the fit was fine, but the players simply didn’t like the look of the slightly larger Cascade design. “Top-of-the-line helmet, best product out there,’’ said Bijeau. “But the kids decided it wasn’t the helmet for them - and the bottom line was, they just didn’t like the look. And trust me, that’s all it was. The captains came up and said, ‘Look, no one wants to say it, but the reality is, the guys think they look goofy in these things.’ ’’ To his chagrin, said Bijeau, vanity ruled the day and the players went back to their old helmets. “Except the two guys who had the concussions,’’ said Bijeau. “They knew what it was like to live with that kind of injury.’’

Black and Golden oldies?

The disdain here for the canned music played at TD Garden during Bruins games is nothing new to my regular readers. As offensive as it has been in recent years, it seems even worse in 2011-12, and I know that may sound like an old man yelling from his porch, telling his kids to get off the lawn. So be it. But I can tell you that I’ve asked a number of 20-somethings and 30-somethings in the building to name those tunes, only to get blank stares or shrugged shoulders as response. In my opinion, it’s audio porn. Before the season’s over, I’d love to have one intermission - just one - when organist Ron Poster takes us through the tattered pages of John Kiley’s playbook. Ah, house lights down, a little “Norwegian Wood’’ (Beatles, ’65) over the PA and a picture of the smiling Kiley up on the Jumbotron. Please!

A world apart

Ex-Bruins Brandon Bochenski (15-18-33 in 28 games) and Kevin Dallman (8-23-31 in 32 games) last week were ranked 1-2 for Astana Barys in the KHL. If your significant other doesn’t know what to get you for the holidays, maybe that Bruins alum tour to Kazakhstan would be just the ticket . . . Still can’t imagine a rookie popping 76 pucks in the net in one season. In fact, can’t imagine anyone doing it. I know, bigger, stronger, faster. But better? Buffalo’s Alexander Mogilny matched Teemu Selanne that year with 76 goals . . . The Canadiens are on Causeway Street tomorrow night. Tomas Kaberle, flipped from the Hurricanes to the Habs two weeks ago, entered last night’s game with a line of 0-4-4 in his three games with Montreal and 0-8-8 in his last five games overall. However, since his Feb. 18 trade to Boston, he still only has one goal . . . Taylor Hall returned to the Oilers lineup after missing seven games with a shoulder injury and nailed a pair of goals his first game back. The Oil opened the season with an 8-2-2 run, but entering yesterday stood 14-14-3, ranked 12th in the West. Look for veteran winger Ales Hemsky, 28 years old, to be dealt prior to the trading deadline. He is on target to be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and it’s clear the Oilers believe it’s time for him to move on . . . Alex Ovechkin scored his 10th goal, one fewer than Brad Marchand, on Thursday night. You cannot make this stuff up . . . Tyler Seguin’s game woke up yesterday (goal, assist). Before that, his line since Sleepgate had been 4 games, 0-1-1, and plus-2. The sophomore sensation also had been blanked in six of his last nine matches before yesterday.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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