Right colour, right consistency – and gets exactly the right reaction when Dr. Charles Tator hands it over to a youngster and asks the child to “jiggle” the human brain.
The Toronto neurologist is Canada’s leading expert on concussions – in particular, hockey concussions such as the one that has kept the country’s greatest player, Sidney Crosby, out of the game for a month and a half now – and he will use any trick he can to get his point across.
Tator has had a special mould made in exactly the shape of the human brain, and he fills it with peach Jell-O and takes it into school classes, where he has it passed around so that children can see for themselves what is inside their skull. If they are young enough he tells them he removed it only that morning and must replace it the following day.
“Jiggle it,” he instructs. “That’s exactly what you have in your head. The brain is that delicate. You can tear it. You can dent it easily. So respect your brain in sport, and respect the brain of your opponent.”
Tator’s campaign against hockey concussions – he became the Anti-Cherry after accusing Don Cherry, Hockey Night In Canada’s iconic Coach’s Corner of preaching “aggressive, lack-of-respect hockey” – came to Ottawa on Wednesday as part of the first Hockey Safety Summit.
The event, held by Reebok-CCM Hockey and the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory, featured representatives from various leagues, including the National Hockey League, Hockey Canada and the academic world, but it was Tator who stole the show with a passionate call for action on the No. 1 hockey injury.
“I’m out to protect the brain,” he told the gathering.” It’s so marvellous a structure – but so fragile.”
Tator’s words followed a laboratory demonstration that included pistons crashing into helmets, a “cannon” driving pucks into skates and computer simulations of the damage done to the brain by various hits, the glancing angular blow, such as the one Crosby suffered New Year’s Day in the outdoor Winter Classic played in Pittsburgh, increasingly seen as the more damaging hit.
“I hope he gets back,” the respected neurosurgeon said. “…But he may never be the same.”
The point of concussions, he argued, is that so very little is known or understood about their immediate or long-term impact. Crosby, Tator suggested, may even have suffered previous concussions as a minor-league player. No one knows. And, he added, “No one can predict what the outcome will be.”
The hit on the Pittsburgh Penguins star – the player, as well, who scored the overtime goal that gave Canada the gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Games – has had a most profound effect on the heated debate concerning hits to the head at the NHL level as well as hits that are occurring in minor-league hockey.
“It has captured the attention of a lot of people who weren’t paying attention to this point,” Tator said. Crosby’s situation, he believes, has both magnified the issue in the public mind and changed the talk of concussion from a debate over what they are to “How can we turn this around?”
Most lesser leagues and minor hockey have taken steps to cut down on head shots, several organizations banning them outright, but everyone in the game is acutely aware that youngsters take their lead from their NHL heroes and will attempt to copy whatever they see on television.
So far, the NHL has only instituted a new rule on blindside hits to the head. The league sent a representative to the Summit, but refused comment. There is speculation, however, that changes may soon be forthcoming, including on-the-spot dressing-room checks done on NHL players rather than checking them out on the bench, as is currently done.
“I like the idea,” Tator says. In his opinion, the quieter dressing room is a superior place to determine if the player is showing any of the multiple signs of concussion, from confusion to slurring, seeing stars and short-term memory loss. It would also remove the player and the one doing the check from the pressures of the coaches to get the player back in the game as quickly as possible.
In fact, says Tator, taking time is as important as immediate action. “The total evolution of symptoms may take days,” he says, “even weeks.” Certainly in Crosby’s case, his situation appeared to worsen as the days passed, at least initially.
The solution, Tator believes, is not to be found in some imagined “super-helmet” that prevents concussion. In his opinion the available helmets “have done a wonderful job of preventing major trauma,” such as blood clots or skull fractures that could threaten a player’s life.
Concussion, he says, is a separate threat, a “silent injury” that leaves no visible signs of injury, no bruises, often nothing at all.
“There’s a whole lot that can be done beyond the helmet,” he says. He is calling for no less than a dramatic change in “the culture of the game.”
This, he says, goes far beyond restoring respect among players for each other, but requires “re-tooled” attitudes among coaches, parents, officials, trainers – even fans. A 24-minute video, Smart Hockey, will be made available to every minor-league team in the country in time for next fall’s preseason meetings.
He believes significant change can happen – including a complete ban of all hits to head – because hockey has, in the past, proved education can change the way the game is played, but not lose the game in the process.
“We taught them not to hit from behind,” he says, referring to a country-wide campaign that included putting “stop” signs on the backs of jerseys.
“That worked – and this can, too.”