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DAVID SHOALTS

Hockey parents, teams hard-headed about concussions Add to ...

What would you do if someone told you that, for the next school year, there will be a 36.5-per-cent chance that every time your child enters the playground he will be hit on the head hard enough to receive a concussion?

Exactly. The screaming at school and government officials would not die down until every child was issued a concussion-proof helmet and the perpetrators were routed.

But Canadians are funny folks. Change the setting to a hockey rink and it is a massive shrug.

What jumps off the pages of the startling report released this week, the Hockey Education Concussion Project, is not just the finding that two junior teams monitored for 52 games during the 2009-10 season had concussion incidents seven times higher than any previous study of that age group or that a concussion was diagnosed in 19 of the 52 games (36.5 per cent) or that 29 per cent of the concussed players (ages 16 through 21) suffered a second concussion during the study.

No, what really stands out is an observation by Charles Tator, the well-known Toronto concussion specialist who was one of a group of distinguished co-authors of the study, which was directed by Paul Echlin of London, Ont.

"This study showed a disturbing lack of compliance by the athletes … as well as a lack of understanding about the seriousness of concussions," Tator said in a release that accompanied the report. "Complaints from players, coaches and parents about this testing gave further credence to the importance of raising awareness about the serious long-term implications of concussions."

This is a problem as big as the skyrocketing number of concussions. Thanks to the amount of research in recent years, only the willfully ignorant fail to realize the extent of the problem and the risk concussions pose to a player's long-term health. Unfortunately, as Echlin admitted, the ranks of the willfully ignorant remain large.

Most of the parental complaints can be summed up as "he looked fine at breakfast this morning so why can't he play?" according to Echlin.

"This didn't surprise me at all," said Echlin, who has treated many young players for concussions. "These aren't bad people. These are hockey parents who put a lot of work and support with their children.

"However, the knowledge level about these serious brain injuries is horrendous. This is what we have to bring to light, how lightly they treat their son or daughter's most precious resource, the brain."

Not bad people? I am not nearly as charitable as Echlin on that one. Too many coaches and general managers want to win, too many parents want to see their kids make the NHL and too many kids do not want to be called a wuss or risk losing ice time.

The blame here goes way beyond the usual whipping boy, the NHL. "Significant resistance to the [Hockey Concussion Education Project]was experienced at all levels," says one of the conclusions in the study.

Resistance was so bad that one of the two teams pulled out of the study before the 2009-10 season was over. None of the players were identified and the teams are referred to only as Team A and Team B in a "fourth-tier" Ontario junior league, which could be the Junior C level.

The players, both teams and the league's executives agreed before the season to abide by the study's protocols. This gave the doctors in the study the ability to test players before the season, examine them during games if a concussion was suspected and to conduct follow-up exams if one was diagnosed.

After 21 games, Team B dropped out, in the words of the study, because "a team executive" wanted the protocols changed so doctors could not examine a player with a suspected concussion until after the game. Prior to that, five of the 17 players who suffered concussions during the study (their teams were not noted), reneged on their agreement with the study doctors and refused further examinations.

On two occasions, players diagnosed with concussions refused follow-up care and provided notes from their family doctors saying they could play. When the family doctors were informed of the diagnoses by the study doctors, both physicians said the "players and parents deliberately deceived them concerning the injury."

It's all well and good to blame the usual suspects - headhunters, fighting, the NHL - but no progress is going to be made until education starts right at home.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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