The Toronto Maple Leafs handling of Mikhail Grabovski in Tuesday night's game at Boston once again brought into question the National Hockey League's concussion protocol .
After being hit by the 6-foot-9 Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, Grabovski fell to the ice, struggled to get up, collapsed, got back on his skates, staggered backward, recovered and struggled to get to the bench. The scene appeared disturbingly reminiscent of Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby's struggles after being hit by Washington's David Steckel in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. When Crosby succumbed to concussion five days later, after again being hit in the head on Jan. 5, he triggered a now raging debate about the league's ability to recognize and react to concussions.
Grabovski took two hits to the head on checks by Chara in Tuesday's game. After the second hit, he was administered smelling salts and allowed to take his next shift. He would go on to score the winning goal later in the third period.
"When I see injuries that occur when players sustain heavy hits to the head or body and have signs that are externally exhibited, signs of the inability to co-ordinate, slowness to get up, those guys have to be evaluated medically, not just tapped on the shoulder, asked if they are okay and they say they're good to go," said Dr. Paul Echlin, a sports medicine physician from London, Ont., who studies concussions. "That is antiquated."
In Boston, the Maple Leafs did not have a team physician with them. Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Grabovski was examined and questioned at the bench by trainer Andy Playter, who determined he did not suffer a concussion.
"[Playter]went right to Grabbo [Grabovski]and said, 'How are you?' He had total recall, he said the puck hit the crossbar, like total recall on the situation. No blackout, no loss of memory, no dizziness, no nausea," Burke told Toronto radio station Sportsnet the Fan 590. "And so the trainer said to him, 'Are you good to go?' and he said, yeah, he got it in the jaw. He said he just got it in the jaw and was disoriented. No symptoms."
The Maple Leafs refused to make either Player or Grabovski available for comment prior to their game in Buffalo on Wednesday night.
Former NHL player Keith Primeau, who was forced to retired from the NHL in 2005 at the age of 33 after his fourth concussion, said it is common for players to lie about their symptoms in order to get back on the ice. Primeau, who now works to educate young players about concussions through his non-profit group Play It Cool, said he was often in the same situation.
"I lived it," he said. "It doesn't make it right. I applaud his courage, I think we all applaud his courage, but at the same time there has to be greater awareness to the situation.
"In that moment, 100 per cent of the pressure is placed on the individual by themselves. It is their desire and their intent to get back out and play."
Primeau said he was surprised Grabovski was allowed to play after the first hit and the fact he did not miss a shift after the second hit made him "even more unsettled." This was echoed by Dr. Richard Wennberg, a neurologist and concussion expert at the University of Toronto, who studied video of both hits. He is also a consultant to the NHL Players' Association.
Dr. Wennberg said he could not criticize the immediate actions of the Leaf trainers because their view from the bench was not as good as a television close-up complete with replays. But he thought Grabovski should not have been allowed to continue playing.
"It was heroic in a sense, but it flies in the face of modern medical recommendations to be cautious," Dr. Wennberg said. "By medical definition, if someone can't get up off the ice after a hit because their balance is off, that is a concussion."
An NHL spokesman said the league is "comfortable" with its present protocol, although he added "it is constantly being reviewed."
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