Twenty-five per cent of junior hockey players on two unnamed teams suffered concussions last year, according to an Ontario study looking at brain injuries.
The report comes after independent physicians followed the two junior clubs during the 2009-10 regular season, where they observed 17 players suffer a total of 21 concussions in 52 games.
A panel of doctors released their findings in a news conference in Toronto on Monday. Dr. Paul Echlin of London, Ont., said 29 per cent of players who had a concussion also endured recurring concussions.
"Being a team physician, and for a person that hasn't thought it in those terms, it is alarming," said Echlin. "And it is something we should take action on. I took action because I kept seeing these players injured and I wanted to create a situation where we could get more discussion and rapidly make change."
The voluntary study, which involved players, parents and coaches, was originally received well, but was later met with resistance.
"Initially they were favourable towards it, but as in any program where you're looking at taking ice time away from the player, when they don't have the education to understand the importance of it, then they became a bit more resistant to doing so," said Echlin, who also points out that multiple concussions can lead to lifelong physical and cognitive deficits.
"In some cases they completely rejected it and decided they didn't want to do it."
1 player's story
While Bradley Madigan, 19, wasn't on the two teams being studied, he did suffer a concussion playing net on a competitive Ontario club in 2008. Madigan made the first save, but was blindsided on the rebound.
Despite the signs, he made the ill-advised decision to return. The move proved costly as he was forced to drop out of school this year because the concussion symptoms have yet to clear.
"Coaches, trainers asked me if I'm OK…well of course I'm OK — I want to play, right?" he said. "That's one issue trainers [and] coaches need to know so they can say, 'You're not going to play.' Yeah it's been tough…no one really sees the dark side of it."
Madigan's father Kevin believes kids feel added pressure to play through pain, regardless of the severity.
"It's unfortunately a culture … this mentality of sucking it up," he said. "That's why Canadians are hockey players so great. Unfortunately when you do [play with head injuries], it has consequences.
In the U.S., nine states have passed legislation, making concussion education mandatory for players, coaches and parents. The players are also required to have a doctor's certificate before they can return to the ice.
"It's an example of how this can work," said Echlin. "It's not a perfect law, I mean it still takes the people involved at all the levels to say, 'This is a concussion and you're out, and you're going to be seen by a specialist.' The more people talk about it, the more emphasis [we place on it] — legislative or not — and I think the more positive effect and success we'll have.
One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Michael Cusimano, wants to see the NHL, Hockey Canada, and leagues around the country do more to prevent concussions.
"This is a time we need real leadership because this season there's going to be at least [15,000] to 20,000 kids who suffer concussions needlessly," he said. "Giving a two-minute [penalty] or one-game suspension is going to do nothing."