It was an awkward hit, but the Vancouver Canucks did not put Mason Raymond's health in jeopardy by allowing him to skate off the ice rather than be taken off on a stretcher during Game 6, experts say.
Raymond suffered a vertebrae compression fracture when he was pushed backward into the boards while bent at the waist by Boston Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk in the first few seconds of Monday's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, according to Canucks general manager Mike Gillis. The 25-year-old winger will likely miss three to four months.
There were questions about the severity of Raymond's injury after he stayed on the ice for several minutes as trainers tended to him. He eventually skated off the ice with the help of two teammates and was taken to hospital on a stretcher.
Some have suggested Raymond was in no condition to stand or even move following the hit.
But many spinal experts and sports trainers say the team made a good call and that it was unlikely Raymond would risk further injury by getting up.
"Personally, I do think they handled it in the right way," said Zhi Wang, a spinal surgeon at the Université de Montréal's Hospital Center. "These types of fractures are actually stable fractures. They do not have any neurological impact."
Vertebrae compression fractures occur when a bone in the spine collapses. They are not considered spinal cord injuries, which range in severity, with the most worrisome type, known as "burst fractures," increasing a person's risk of long-term problems, including nerve damage and paralysis. People with burst fractures experience intense, excruciating pain, much different than the pain associated with compression fractures, experts say.
Dr. Michael MacKay of Winnipeg's Legacy Sport Medicine clinic said that if Raymond had suffered a burst fracture in his spinal column, the situation would have been much worse.
"The bones would have broken in multiple places. His legs would have been burning or numb. It would have been different on the ice. He would be in a lot of pain."
The NHL has decided not to suspend Boychuk for the hit, which enraged many Vancouver fans and prompted some experts to say the incident provides more evidence the league is too lax on violence.
"One shift of a millimetre, a couple millimetres, a centimetre and it injures the [spinal]cord and you get irreparable damage," said Paul Echlin, a sports medicine specialist based in London, Ont. "He has a fracture and they're lucky that something [more serious]doesn't happen."
Dr. Wang said there is a difference between Monday's incident involving Raymond and hits that cause serious neurological injuries. Compression fractures are typically stable injuries and the trainer would have done an evaluation to ensure that was the case, he said.
"Once the patient is moving his legs, very, very rarely he can deteriorate neurologically because of the injury," Dr. Wang said.
Former Calgary Flames physiotherapist Terry Kane has seen a lot in his time in hockey. But seeing a player suffer a vertebrae compression fracture is a new one, he said. "It requires being in a bent-over position and being crushed. It's like being struck by lightning."
Kane believes Canucks trainer Mike Burnstein followed protocol and was sure Raymond could leave the ice without risking further injury.
"As a rule, for any suspected fracture, spinal injury, anything with the neck, you take him off on a stretcher. I can only assume that [Raymond]must have had feeling in his legs and was moving them," Kane said. "The only thing I can think is the player gave the trainer no indication at all. The player, he's on high emotions. It's just the start of the game. The player probably didn't think it was that severe."
Dr. Echlin disagrees. He said even if the player insists he is fine, the team should err on the side of caution and insist he be taken off on a stretcher. The incident speaks to a cultural problem within hockey, he said.
"The underlying issue is the violence that continues on and on," he said. "It amazes me that they can be so up front and say we sell violence."
With a report by James Mirtle