The rhetoric around concussions in the NHL is on the rise along with the number of high-profile players suffering from one.
Agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Sports, who represents concussed league goal-scoring leader Milan Michalek, believes the issue has become an "epidemic" and called on the league to do more to address it.
"Clearly, the NHL is in the throes of a concussion epidemic," Walsh said Thursday. "Only time will tell how severe the long-term health ramifications will be for concussed NHL players. With the economic incentive to make NHL hockey more exciting, the league worked diligently to increase the speed of the game. With increased speed necessarily comes increased collision.
"The results as it relates to player safety are self evident."
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly scoffed at that suggestion.
"For people to suggest that the last seven to 10 days and the experience we've had and some of the names that are out should somehow materially alter our approach to this issue is ridiculous," he said.
The spotlight returned to hockey's hot-button issue on Monday when Sidney Crosby announced that he'd suffered a setback in his return to action and got even more intense with a string of similar diagnoses in the days that followed.
The Penguins' Curse
Concussions are becoming the curse of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and not just because of Sidney Crosby.
And what equally perplexes and worries one of the NHL's highest-profile teams is that the Penguins don't know what to do about an epidemic of head injuries that has affected nearly one-quarter of their roster, including star defenceman Kris Letang and shutdown defender Zbynek Michalek.
Even coach Dan Bylsma wonders: When does it end?
When will Crosby and his wondrous skills be back — next week, or next year? And what about Letang, whose offensive talents are matched by few other NHL defencemen yet have not been seen since Nov. 26?
"You don't know if a guy is going to be out one week, two weeks, or longer," Bylsma said Thursday, before the Penguins headed off to Ottawa for a Friday night game in which both teams will have stars out with concussions. "That uncertainty makes it kind of tough to plan. The uncertainty of it is difficult."
It's not just seeing so much talent off the ice that troubles Bylsma. It's also watching his concussed players struggle to perform tasks that normally take little effort, to find words that normally slip into their conversation with ease.
Tyler Kennedy, a valuable scorer who centres Jordan Staal's effective line, missed a month with a concussion that caused him to experience fogginess and headaches. Defenceman Roberto Bortuzzo, called up from the minors because so many players were injured, now has a concussion, too.
"It's really frustrating," said Michalek, who also has been out since Nov. 26. "I've never had a problem with my head before. It's not easy to go through. It's part of the game — I guess."
There's no guessing about that, at least not in this Year of the Concussion. The Penguins have lost 151 games to injury this season, a majority of it to concussions; Crosby has missed 64 games this calendar year alone.
— The Canadian Press
Michalek was injured Tuesday night after colliding with a teammate, joining the NHL's leading scorer (Claude Giroux) and its reigning rookie of the year (Jeff Skinner).
The Philadelphia Flyers added to the list of felled players on Thursday when general manager Paul Holmgren announced that captain Chris Pronger will miss the rest of the season with "severe post-concussion syndrome."
Other stars like Mike Richards, Kris Letang and Marc Staal are also on the sidelines. In all, players earning more than $50 million combined this season are currently out with head injuries.
However, the number of total concussions through the same period last season is actually down, according to Daly.
"We've probably had periods of time where we've had as many concussions, but they weren't … as high-profile players," he said. "The last thing anybody wants to do is overreact to a very short snapshot in time."
Key administrators in the sport certainly can not be accused of ignoring the issue altogether. Earlier this year, the NHL and NHL Players' Association signed off on a new concussion protocol which introduced more rigid rules governing the diagnosis of head injuries and return to play procedure.
Changes have also been made to the rulebook. The league's general managers introduced rule 48 outlawing blindside hits to the head in 2010 before refining the wording around that rule and one covering boarding prior to this season. Brendan Shanahan was also handed a directive to be more strict along with the job of disciplinarian.
And for the first time ever, the NHLPA conducted its fall tour of all 30 teams with a doctor in tow to discuss concussions. He fielded no shortage of questions from players on a subject they're just as concerned about as the public.
But the kind of change Walsh is advocating is more fundamental. He's seen their impact first-hand with clients like St. Louis Blues forward David Perron and Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who both sat out a year with a concussion.
"It's time for the NHL and teams to treat this issue as the crisis it is," said Walsh. "The get tough suspension policy has had no effect in reducing the incidence of concussions. The NHL must look inward to immediately address the root cause of these concussions and all factors should be on the table including but not limited to the speed of the game, size of equipment, rule changes related to the red-line, helmet safety standards, use of mouthguards, staged fights, and headshots."
At least one NHL general manager agrees with him, telling The Canadian Press privately this week he believes measures need to be taken to slow the game down.
That would likely involve reversing some of the once-celebrated changes that came out of the 2004-05 lockout — such as removing the trapezoid behind the goal or reinstating the red-line for two-line passes. It could also include expanding the rink size, among other things.
Daly noted that concussions have been on the agenda at every GMs meeting he can remember over the last number of years. That will be the case once again in March, but he doesn't think there's enough appetite for drastic change.
"I don't believe it's a crisis, I don't believe it's an epidemic," said Daly. "There's nothing we can do that doesn't change the game fundamentally that's going to eliminate concussions in our game. Bottom line is they're a fact of life in a contact sport — not just ours — and they continue to be a fact of life.
"As long as we understand the nature of these injuries and we're approaching it responsibly, which I would suggest we are, there's not a whole lot more we can do about it."