NHL concussions put player insurance in question

With dozens of players sidelined with concussions this NHL season, player safety has been on the minds of teams and athletes, but there's another concern bubbling under the surface — the future of insuring players against concussions.

More than 60 players have been sidelined so far in 2011-12 season

Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby is checked by a trainer during a game against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 1. Crosby remains sidelined with concussion-like symptoms after playing just eight games earlier this season. (Ann Heisenfelt/Reuters)

With dozens of players sidelined with concussions this NHL season — including the game's biggest star, Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby — concerns have been raised about the future of insuring players against concussions.

At this point in the 2011-12 season, more than 60 players have suffered a concussion and at least 830 man-games have been lost due to head injuries, according to statistics compiled by CBCSports.ca senior hockey writer Tim Wharnsby.

It's the spike in numbers that could have an impact on how players, and their teams, are covered financially.

According to a Toronto Star report, insurance companies specializing in sports coverage may be forced to adjust how they cover hockey teams if the number of players sidelined with head injuries continues to increase.

Bill Hubbard, chief executive of New York-based HCC Specialty, a company that specializes in the sports industry and has previously insured hockey players, told The Star's Rick Westhead that the insurance industry could change the way it deals with hockey players.

"Right now you've got 10 per cent of the league affected by concussions," Hubbard said. "While I don't know where the breaking point is, at some point, if it keeps trending this way, companies are not going to be able to insure NHL players for concussions."

If that were to happen, NHL teams wouldn't be able to get coverage for players who suffer head injuries. And teams would be on the hook for injured players' multi-million dollar contracts without any compensation from insurance companies. 

Greg Sutton, president of the Toronto company Sutton Special Risk, which supplies off-ice insurance to NHL players, told CBC Radio's Tom Parry that it's too early to say the industry will change because it's still evolving.

Sutton said it used to be that insurers were concerned about knees and shoulders, then it was worries about players not wearing visors, now it's concussions.

He said insurance companies could insist on exclusion clauses for players who have had concussions, similar to how they have clauses for different heath problems. 

Both the league and players' union acknowledge that concussions are the biggest on-ice issues facing their sport right now. 

The spike in concussions can be traced to a couple factors. Players are bigger and the game is faster for one, equipment is lighter and harder, and new rules — like curbing interference and obstruction and eliminating the centre line for two-line offsides — have sped up the game.

Concussions and potential rule changes, such as putting the centre line back in, will be on the agenda when the league’s general managers meet in mid-March.