NHL must lead way on concussions: experts

Experts say professional players, NHL brass and parents need to set a better example or more young players will suffer from debilitating brain injuries.

Jason Smith was barely old enough to walk when he used the hose to make an ice rink in his family's Calgary-area yard.

By his fourth birthday, Smith told his mother he wanted to be a professional hockey player.

"Hockey was life," remembered Smith. "It was the most important thing to me. Hockey was the only thing I knew, the only thing I cared about."

After getting a hockey scholarship to Princeton and becoming a draft pick for the Calgary Flames, Smith's lifelong dream was shattered. He suffered three concussions in six months and was told to retire.

"I had a Princeton degree and I couldn't handwrite a letter," said Smith, now an orthopedic surgeon and consultant to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I was scared."

Experts say professional players, NHL brass and parents need to set a better example or more young players like Smith will suffer from debilitating brain injuries.

Young players are increasingly getting their "bells rung" in soccer, hockey and football, doctors said at a Hockey Canada seminar on concussions held Saturday in Winnipeg.

Many players are also being pressured by parents and coaches to return to the field and ice too soon, paving the way for more serious injury and even death.

"It's reached epidemic proportions," said Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon and founder of ThinkFirst.

"Too many people are getting these concussions. They really are not mild … We have to take it more seriously."

Concussions are often caused by a hit to any part of the head. While they don't tend to show up on an MRI or CT scan, symptoms include nausea, dizziness, vomiting and memory loss.

They have a cumulative impact on the brain, Tator said. While many people will get over their first concussion, Tator said not everyone recovers from their second.

Part of the problem stems from what young players watch their idols do on the ice, Tator said.

"When kids see players like [Wayne] Gretzky wearing "a piece of Kleenex on his head," Tator said there is little incentive for youngsters to play safely. Many young players also imitate the head-checks they see in professional hockey — with tragic consequences, he said.

Others watch players like Eric Lindros "tough it out" and return to the ice after suffering numerous concussions, he added.

"The pros are not always on our side," Tator said. "That is a problem for us."

James Kissick, former head team physician for the Ottawa Senators, said the NHL's reluctance to ban head-checks is puzzling.

"I've never seen an employer who didn't take steps to protect their assets and I've never seen a union that didn't put the safety of its members first," he said. "Nevertheless, headshots continue and they seem to be reluctant to do anything about it."

Some sports physicians say they are tired of hearing the same arguments from NHL brass who argue banning checks to the head would fundamentally change the nature of the game. Patrick Bishop, professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, said traumatic brain injuries have never been a crucial part of hockey.

"It's a myth," he said. "It's a crock and we need people to stand up and do something about it."

Still others say parents and spectators also have their part to play. Paul Dennis, player development coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs, said it's too simplistic to just "throw shots" at the NHL.

"If we advocate for less hits to the head and no fighting, then when we go to a game ourselves, do we jump to our feet and cheer when there is a big hit?" Dennis said. "If we don't want that to happen, what are we doing about it?"