Montreal Canadiens forward Michael Cammalleri is hopeful, as much for himself as for other NHL players.
All this focus on head injuries and concussions is a good thing, he believes, a shift in emphasis that may eventually be looked upon as a "transition period" for hockey.
"I think telling that story and looking at the evidence of [degenerative brain disease]is going to change the way you look at things, unless you're really not paying attention," Cammalleri said.
The story Cammalleri referred to involves former NHL player Reggie Fleming, who passed away last summer with what doctors have now determined was brain trauma from as many as 20 concussions suffered over 13 NHL seasons. The Boston University School of Medicine examined slices of Fleming's brain and found it to be damaged in the same pattern as tissue taken from a dozen deceased football players and five boxers.
Fleming is the first hockey player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a revelation that should grab the attention of NHL players.
"This is a man's game, it's a physical game. It's always shrugged at talk about injuries," Cammalleri said Friday. "But over the years you've seen intelligent people get involved and they're saying to take this stuff seriously. They're not saying to take anything away from the game, but let's not be ignorant of the risks."
For Cammalleri to acknowledge the Fleming data and to accept its validity can be viewed as something of a breakthrough in a sport where change moves at a plodding pace. Most anything that infringes on how the game is played is countered with the usual rebuttals about tradition or "you can't mess with the intricate on-ice workings of the players and their roles."
Over the years you've seen intelligent people get involved and they're saying to take this stuff seriously. They're not saying to take anything away from the game, but let's not be ignorant of the risks Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri
Former NHL therapist Terry Kane is hopeful Fleming's tale bridges the gap between the hockey side, which talks openly about protecting the integrity of the game, and the medical community, which deals with its injured practitioners.
"There is a culture that exists in professional sports, particularly hockey, that makes it difficult for athletes to come forward," Kane said. "The most powerful drugs in sports are not steroids, they're testosterone and peer pressure. There are certain people out there who say, 'You're a pansy if you wear [a visor]' If you notice, it's not the third- or fourth-liners who are wearing them, it's the skilled players or the Europeans who aren't affected by the same peer pressure."
Kane added there are other forces at work pushing the concussion issue to the forefront.
"The catalyst for a lot of this occurring is legal," Kane said. "In pro sports they've got good lawyers and they're able to find other data to affect what's done from concussions. Now we're seeing medical evidence coming forward and that's the DNA of concussions. There is a pattern from blows to the head."
Glenn Healy can see another pattern emerging. As the former director of player affairs for the National Hockey League Players' Association, he tried last year to have league general managers push for stiffer penalties for players who blindside unknowing opponents in a vulnerable position.
"We said, 'The players want penalties for hits from the blindside.' The GMs looked at us like we had three heads," he said.
But with more players being sidelined longer with postconcussion ills, there is a sense now the NHL is open to doing more to protect its players, from implementing harsher penalties for head shots to addressing the equipment-as-a-weapon issue that has raged for several seasons.
Symptoms that stem from a blow to the head
"Like with most things, it's brought up [to the NHL] it's pushed down, then it bubbles up and they have to deal with it," Healy said. "I definitely think that it will change. … There's a whole list of stakeholders who are on the same page - the players and the GMs who are starting to recognize there's a financial component to [players being paid while out of the lineup for a lengthy period of time]"
The Ontario Hockey League is one of the rare jurisdictions to have taken steps aimed at reducing hits to the head. Two seasons ago, the OHL created a new category of penalty and is measuring progress in limiting concussions and head injuries.
"Timing is everything," OHL vice-president Ted Baker said. "I remember going to a GMs meeting over 10 years ago and we showed a movie of what happens to monkeys' brains when they receive contact on the head, and we said, 'Guys, we need to do something about legal hits where players are taking shots to the head.' The vast majority said no. It took years, but it happened."
Baker was also quick to dismiss the argument that cracking down on head shots will somehow adulterate the physical nature of the game (or, to use former NHL player and GM Mike Milbury's turn of phrase, "pansify" it).
"Our point of view is we haven't seen any decrease at all in the physicality or body contact in our league," Baker said.
(Despite the OHL's stricter head-shot penalties, it still had to deal with the October hit that landed 16-year-old Kitchener Ranger defenceman Ben Fanelli in intensive care with a fractured skull.) Cammalleri was asked if he'd be willing to donate his brain to science to help further the understanding of the brain pathologies of NHL players. Recalling the concussion he suffered playing Junior A hockey - "I puked for a couple of days after" - Cammalleri said he'd consider it.
"I'm not going to sit here and say no. I haven't thought a lot about it, but my initial reaction is it could interest me."
Head injuries in hockey
- The proof: NHLer's condition linked to concussions at time of death
- The man: Reggie Fleming's story
- Video: Reggie Fleming interview
- Usual Suspects: Fleming's diagnosis should serve as wakeup call
- Brain damage: Building a better helmet
- Staring early: Minor hockey gets serious about safety
- Graphic: Anatomy of a concussion
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