A view from the front lines of the NHL's concussion debate must, of necessity, include a chat with the Minnesota Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed a staggering 104 games over parts of two seasons recovering from a pair of debilitating, career-threatening concussions.
Bouchard never ever thought he would be out as long he was, which goes to the heart of the concussion conundrum. At the time the injuries occur, the players themselves are in the worst position to self-diagnose because they are, after all, suffering from a brain injury that impairs judgment.
"Concussions are really tricky," Bouchard was saying, before the Wild clobbered Calgary 6-0 to sweep the two Alberta teams and unexpectedly move into contention for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Bouchard is scoring again, but freely acknowledges that even 24 games into his return, he has not got his old form back.
"To be honest, I don't think it's there, 100 per cent yet," said Bouchard. "I was out for so long. Some games, I feel my game is there. Sometimes, I know there's part of my game that can still be better - that what I used to do in the past, I can be better doing. It's been okay. There are good things and bad things I do in the game, but I think I'm heading in the right direction."
Bouchard was reiterating a point that came up again and again this past week - that the players themselves have a difficult time assessing how bad an injury is, especially when it first occurs.
Pat Brisson, the influential player agent who represents Sidney Crosby and others, says the support group that surrounds an NHL player needs to be at the front of the diagnostic line when it comes to concussion treatment.
"If someone is slightly concussed and we see that, it's our responsibility - meaning the people around the game, the teams, the union, all of us - to be responsible enough to take the player off the ice," said Brisson. "Because the concussed player can't think straight. He doesn't have a bad shoulder. He's concussed."
As for observing the proper back-to-playing protocols, Bouchard suggests that it can be difficult for a player to be honest with himself in terms of the recovery process.
"I had kind of back-to-back concussions and my second one, when I got hit, the next day, I didn't feel right, but you're not sure it's a concussion, because we get hit all the time and your neck is sore and you get headaches sometimes. You think, 'maybe I'll feel better the next day.'
"Then you get into action and your heart rate goes up really high and you're starting to have headaches, so ... I think guys have to be smart about it, because it's not fun to have that injury. If you have a small one and you make sure you're 100 per cent before your next game, you might miss five, six, seven days and then you're fine.
"So I think we have to be a little smarter about how you feel - and I think it's only the player who can say how he feels."
But Bouchard also acknowledged that the most difficult part of the equation is dealing with a players' natural instinct - that he can put up with whatever he's dealing with, that he'll be okay, that he can tough it out, because that is the ethic they've grown up with.
"As hockey players, we don't like to miss games," said Bouchard. "You think you can play through it. You think you'll be able to get rid of it the next few days - and you might. But if you get hit again, there's that danger - that you could get an even bigger concussion."
ETC ETC: The Detroit Red Wings' decision to throw the dice and sign goaltender Evgeni Nabokov represents a fascinating gamble, but not that much of a departure from organizational policy - pre-lockout organization policy that is. The Red Wings were always willing to spend whatever it took to win when that was still possible - and they did it better than most big-market teams. While having lavish and generous owners did nothing to enhance the Toronto Maple Leafs or the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup aspirations, Detroit spent money more judiciously, same as they do now, when spending is restricted. Remember Dominik Hasek? Curtis Joseph? They weren't always spectacular successes, but Joseph was serviceable and they won a championship with Hasek. Nabokov? Well, he did beat them four out of five times in last year's playoffs, enough proof of his improving playoff pedigree that they were willing to throw a one-way contract at him and then see what happens when he hits the waiver wire. Ultimately, the goal was to find someone to play alongside Jimmy Howard because of Chris Osgood's sports hernia surgery, but if they sneak him onto the roster - probably a long shot at this stage of the game - no one would be surprised to see him win the starting job by April.
SINGING THE BLUES: Meanwhile, back on the waiver wars, the St. Louis Blues were so sure that Kyle Wellwood, whom they signed to a one-year contract, would slip through waivers that he was participating in their morning skate Tuesday when the news came that San Jose had grabbed the ex-Leaf, ex-Canuck for themselves. It was the second time in a month that the Blues went to the trouble of signing a player who'd left the KHL and lost him on waivers to an opponent - Nashville grabbed Marek Svatos under similar circumstances. Wellwood signed for $650,000, prorated, meaning the Sharks salary cap charge is in the $300,000 range - small change if Wellwood can help bolster the team's badly flagging secondary scoring. Understandably, Blues president John Davidson wants the waiver rule amended as it relates to KHL casualties so that it protects the teams that do all the leg work on these contracts.
THIS AND THAT: Minnesota is unexpectedly pushing the Colorado Avalanche for what now would be the final playoff berth in the Western Conference (only one point behind as of Friday morning), thanks to a 7-3 surge. Injuries, meanwhile, finally appear to be catching up to Colorado, who lost another player Thursday, when productive point-per-game man Tomas Fleischmann was lost for the season after it was discovered that he had blot clots in his lungs. As a result, Fleischman will need to take blood-thinning medication for at least a couple of months and won't be playing as a result. Fleischmann had been playing on the top line since coming over from Washington and had made an impact on the Avs, who are still the second highest scoring team in the West behind Detroit.
SHARK ALERT: Patrick Marleau broke into the NHL as a teenager a decade ago, when it was far less common than it is today, which is why he was able to reach the 1,000-game plateau earlier this week, just four months past his 31st birthday. The Stars' Jamie Langenbrunner reached the milestone mark on the same day, but it took him four years longer to do so. Marleau is the third-youngest in history to get there and at the rate he's going, provided he wants to play until he's close to 40, he has a chance to become the all-time leader in NHL games played. Gordie Howe currently holds the mark at 1,767, followed by Mark Messier at 1.756 and Ron Francis at 1,731. Chris Chelios, in case you're wondering, played parts of 26 seasons, same as Howe, and topped out at 1,651, fourth on the all-time list.
ETC, ETC: The Kings had a 12-3 run to start the season, a 9-2-1 stretch through most of December, but they've also had a 2-10 run of late that's dropped them five points out of a playoff spot and searching desperately for answers that don't appear to be coming from within. GM Dean Lombardi suggested a coaching change is not in the works and he has previously acknowledged that attempts to acquire a significant dressing-room force have failed. L.A. appears to be frittering away its opportunity to become relevant again in that very tough market ... The twin losses of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin proved too hard for the Penguins to overcome in the shutout loss to New Jersey - who is surprised? - but thank goodness Jordan Staal is back and producing again. Stall had six points in three previous games prior to the Devils loss as the Penguins try to tread water until their big dogs return ... Nashville's J.P. Dumont has four career hat tricks. Three came in the first couple of years of his career and the fourth after a nine-and-a-half year drought. Dumont scored three in a 5-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes this past Tuesday, the first time he'd scored three in a game since Nov. 12, 2001. The Preds' recent hot streak pushed them past Chicago into second in the Central and fourth overall in the Western Conference. Unbelievable how they do it year after year ... The Flyers played just one home game in a 28-day span that began Dec. 21 and ended Jan. 18, a time which included two massive road trips. For all the travel, Philly managed to stay atop the Eastern Conference standings by posting a 7-3 mark. Things look even brighter for the home stretch. Not only is Chris Pronger back after a month-long absence, the only time they'll need to leave their time zone from here until the end of the season is this Sunday's game against the Blackhawks, a much-anticipated Stanley Cup final replay that will be broadcast across the U.S. on NBC.