A day after pronouncing himself sore but reasonably fit and ready to play, Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook was nowhere to seen for Game 4 of the Western Conference quarter-final against the Vancouver Canucks.
Seabrook took a crushing blow to the head from Raffi Torres of the Canucks in a loss Sunday and, even though all the doctors on press row figured the hit caused a concussion or at least concussion-like symptoms, coach Joel Quenneville was only prepared to call it an "upper body injury."
Whatever. It was another head-scratching test of the NHL's new commitment to concussion diagnosis and treatment that left many puzzled observers with more questions than answers. Seabrook returned to play Sunday after getting clobbered behind the net by Torres.
Soon afterwards, he was hit again - by both Torres and Tanner Glass. Only then and only under duress did he make his way to the so-called quiet room to be examined by medical personnel, as per the league's new concussion protocol. Seabrook apparently showed enough awareness to pass whatever test was administered because he returned to play in the third period and finished the game.
NHL general managers adopted these new procedures during their March meetings, but their application has been scattershot and inconsistent. As a rule, players do not want to voluntarily leave any game and they especially do not want to leave playoff games with their team down 2-0 in a series, as Chicago was at that time. Seabrook acknowledged as much - that he was ordered out of that game against his own wishes. One can only assume he was ordered to sit out Tuesday against his own wishes as well.
Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion, was facing elimination against the visiting Canucks, down 3-0 in the best-of-seven series. Generally speaking, too many players do not look beyond the shortest of these short-term goals - winning tonight - thus creating an exasperating dilemma for doctors and medical personnel, who, theoretically anyway, are obliged to put the best interests of the players' long-term health ahead of the in-the-moment, on-ice contest.
It doesn't help matters when Torres gets off scot-free, on the grounds that his hit on Seabrook did not contravene the narrow definition of the league's blind-side head-shot rule. Somewhere along the way, the message that seemed to emerge from the GMs' meetings - that brain injuries are a problem and the players have a responsibility to police their own actions - was missed by Torres, as well as Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins, for that matter.
Downie and Kunitz each received single-game suspensions Tuesday for delivering blows to the head in their game Monday night. Watch Downie's hit against the Penguins defenceman Ben Lovejoy and compare it to a similar one he put on Ottawa Senators forward Dean McAmmond all those years ago and try to explain the difference. Downie received 20 games for the McAmmond hit, one for the blow on Lovejoy. And these are supposed to be kinder, gentler, more aware times we're living in. Curiouser and curiouser.
As the Blackhawks readied to play the Canucks Tuesday night, they welcomed one of their formerly concussed brethren back in the lineup - Dave Bolland, who hadn't played since early March. Bolland was pressed into service Tuesday and assigned the job of hounding the Canucks star Henrik Sedin, a player he checked into the ice last year, when the roles of the two teams was reversed. Last year, Chicago had all the answers; this year, it looks as if the Canucks' mojo is too strong, that and the confidence that runs all the way through their lineup.
Mostly, the Blackhawks were trying to channel the spirit of the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that rallied from a three-game disadvantage to defeat the Boston Bruins in the second round last year. Quenneville said that extraordinary comeback was the focal point of his address to the troops and it was a thought echoed by team captain Jonathan Toews, who said the Blackhawks were a relaxed team with nothing left to lose.
"We can play loose; we can let it all hang out," Toews said. "We're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We're looking to play as hard as we can. We're professionals in here and care about each other."
Presumably, they care about Seabrook, too, who was obliged to take a spectator's role Tuesday night, with the Blackhawks' season on the line. One concussed player in for Chicago, one out. If the NHL thinks that's a trade-off it can live with, well, perhaps it better think again.