Once more, the casualties are starting to add up. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues. René Bourque and Raphael Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens.
With at least 11 players having suffered concussions during the last two weeks – Ottawa Senators defenceman Mike Lundin joined the list on Saturday – the NHL is again confronted by a problem that refuses to go away. Last season, CBC.ca determined 88 players suffered head injuries or concussions for a total 1,697 man-games lost. This season, the exact numbers are harder to determine since some teams are describing possible concussions as upper-body injuries or flu-like symptoms.
What is known for sure is that a shortened regular season has led to high-intensity, high-stakes hockey and a growing number of concussion victims, some of whom (Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, Ryan Carter of the New Jersey Devils) have returned to action.
“There’s no question, the games are beyond competitive. It’s unbelievable,” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who thinks there is one way to make the game safer. “None of this [fretting over concussions] is going away until we make the ice bigger.”
Malkin, the NHL’s reigning most valuable player, has only recently taken his first steps toward rejoining the Penguins. While he remains on injured reserve, Malkin did two days of consecutive off-ice workouts Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday he participated in a full-contact team practice. He whiplashed his head against the end boards Feb. 22 against the Florida Panthers and complained of dizziness and headaches. Erik Gudbranson, the defenceman who shoved Malkin into the boards, did not receive a penalty or any supplemental discipline.
“There’s got to be more wear and tear [on the players this season], and if you’re a star, you’re getting a lot of attention,” Babcock added. “You’re going to be prone to getting hurt.”
The NHL insists that while the public may not be aware of the exact nature of a player’s injury, those who need to know are fully informed. League deputy commissioner Bill Daly has stated “there is transparency in relation to the reporting of concussions internally” and that the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and medical professionals have “all the information they need to adequately analyze causes and trends …”
That may be so, but even with an adjusted interpretation of Rule 48 and contact with the head, players continue to target their opponents and the body count is mounting. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien is a witness to that. So far this season, he’s had three players sidelined by head injuries.
“Sometimes it can take 24 hours [for symptoms to appear], 48 hours,” Therrien said. “For some guys, it can take 10 days or longer. Once the symptoms appear, that’s when the medical team becomes involved.
“I’m not a specialist, but I’m starting to get pretty good.”