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The Toronto Maple Leafs are avoiding use of the ‘C’ word when discussing Joffrey Lupul’s injury. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
The Toronto Maple Leafs are avoiding use of the ‘C’ word when discussing Joffrey Lupul’s injury. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Roy MacGregor

Why 'concussion' became a four-letter word in the NHL Add to ...

The river appears to be reversing its flow.

It has always been a given that whatever happens in the NHL will quickly drift down to the lower levels. The only thing that prevents novice AA players from sporting playoff beards is time and hormones.

But can the influence go the other direction?

For some time now there has been concern in Hockey Canada circles that parents and players cannot always be trusted when it comes to concussions. Players will hide symptoms to keep playing; parents will pressure coaches to bring an injured player back early, their fear being that the child will fall behind the others on his march to NHL celebrity and riches.

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The NHL has increasingly shown a reluctance even to use the word “concussion.” A player is described as “dizzy” or suffering “whiplash,” anything to avoid using the word that is increasingly regarded as a stigma.

It has become the game’s “C” word.”

No player wishes to be known as susceptible to concussion. The word has become the hockey equivalent to “glass jaw” in boxing. It has entered that slim dictionary that holds words and phrases that no one wants to hear: choke, turtled and, worst of all ridiculous sports phrases, “a cancer in the dressing room.”

Yet this is not feelings we are discussing, this is health itself.

Thursday evening, one of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most exciting players, Joffrey Lupul, woozed and wobbled his way off the ice following a combination collision with two Philadelphia Flyers.

He did not look good. He did not return. He did not practise with the team on Friday. He did not leave with the team for New Jersey. He will not play against the Devils Saturday night.

Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle told the media right after Thursday’s game that Lupul “feels fine now.” The next morning, he saw Lupul again, following some testing on the player, and, according to Carlyle, “he didn’t look very good.” Lupul had just had drops put in his eyes.

That’s when the semantics scuffle really got weird. Asked if the injury to Lupul was a concussion, Carlyle chose to label the medical term “a bad word.”

It is fascinating how quickly the Pittsburgh Penguins put out the word that, despite the broken jaw that has likely ended Sidney Crosby’s spectacular regular season, the world needs to know he does not have a concussion. They don’t even want speculation, as it, too, comes with stigma, a strong sense that the next time hockey’s most important name is correctly tied to the word, his career may well be over.

The NHL understandably fears this word. After all, the list of superior players lost to the mysterious injury – Kariya, Lindros, LaFontaine, Savard, Primeau – is an all-star lineup.

It would be presumed that the league would be doing all it can to prevent such injuries from happening. It would seem, on the most base measure, to make good economic sense. On the most human measure, it would not only save careers, but down the line, as science is increasingly proving, save lives.

Many in the NHL, however, still cling to the hoary notion that a player “got his bell rung,” a phrase that used to be accompanied by chuckles if not full guffaws.

Carlyle even put forward the eye-popping theory that there is a connection between the helmets players wear for safety and the proliferation of head injuries they suffer.

“Everyone sweats a lot more,” he told Sportsnet's Michael Grange later. “The brain swells. The brain is closer to the skull. Think about it. Does it make sense? Common sense? Heat expands and cold contracts. The brain is like a muscle, it’s pumping, it swells, it’s a lot closer to the outside of the skull.”

Let’s just leave that without comment.

Avoidance is the real problem here. The message is to avoid a word that so desperately needs to be at the core of every discussion we have on player safety in a wonderful game that can be played, ruggedly, with far less risk to the human brain, whether swollen by heat or not.

Wasn’t it just last week that Dmitry Uchaykin, a player for the Kazakhstan team Ertis Pavlador, died after taking a hard hit to the head? He not only skated off the ice but drove himself home. Next day he lapsed into a coma and died.

Talk about having your bell rung.

Just don’t use the “C” word.

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