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Maple Leafs' Armstrong only the latest NHLer to conceal concussion

Vancouver Canucks' Alexander Elder (left) puts Toronto Maple Leafs' Colby Armstrong into the boards as they battle for control of the puck during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday December 17, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

Pawel Dwulit/CP

It would be nice to say Colby Armstrong is an isolated example of a player who will put the desire to play ahead of his health, but all you can say is he is the latest example.

Even though concussion experts say the study of concussions is in its infancy, there is a wealth of information available to NHL players, coaches and managers about the symptoms and what needs to be done to treat them. Yet concussion and other injury symptoms are too often ignored because of the win-at-all costs mentality that permeates professional sports.

Coaches and managers are most often accused of brushing aside concerns about a player's head and browbeating him into playing. But as Armstrong showed on Monday, by trying to hide his concussion symptoms from the team until he got so sick the truth had to come out, players can be their own worst enemies.

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It is easy to sympathize with Armstrong. He is in his second season with the Leafs and has had some awful luck with injuries, mostly to do with his feet. He missed 32 games last season and just returned to the lineup on Dec. 9 after missing 23 games with a sprained ankle.

The desire to stay in the lineup must have been overwhelming for Armstrong. So when he didn't feel right after colliding with Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday night, maybe it was easy to ignore that feeling and tell the medical staff only about the cracked toe he sustained in the same collision.

Paul Echlin, a sports medicine specialist in London, Ont., who studies concussions, says he sees that attitude even in 12-year-old hockey players. It is one of the chief obstacles to the proper diagnosis and treatment of concussions. But more importantly, that attitude threatens a player's well-being, both in the short- and long-term.

"It's got to stop," Echlin said Tuesday. "People have to realize it's not bad to report symptoms or to say you don't feel right after a hit. If you get the diagnosis sooner, you can allow people to rest."

You can also not allow them to go back in a game and risk another hit to the head, one that could end a career.

Instead, Armstrong chose to try and hide his symptoms. He told the media on Monday morning he was fine and was ready to play against the Los Angeles Kings that night. He did look pale but everyone assumed the injury in question was his foot.

When he didn't appear in the lineup, everyone assumed once again Armstrong's foot was troubling him – until Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said after the Kings game that Armstrong threw up from the nausea caused by riding an exercise bike that afternoon and admitted he had concussion symptoms.

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"It took us all by complete shock because we had no idea that he had his bell rung the other night," Wilson said. "He kind of kept that from us. He didn't tell the trainers or the doctors [Sunday]that he had his bell rung. He was nauseated, blurry vision, so he's got a concussion and we didn't know that until later [Monday]afternoon."

As they say in court, ignorance is not an excuse for breaking the law. And so it is here, although you have to wonder about any claim of ignorance given the blazing spotlight on concussions in the NHL over the past two years.

Armstrong just happens to be a good friend of Sidney Crosby. If he had any doubts, Crosby could have told him all about the dangers of playing a couple of days after a hard hit to the head.

The trouble is, too many players are willing to ignore the danger signs because they want to play or worry about losing a spot on the team. But the consequences are not worth it.

In addition to risking another head shot, Echlin says players are also playing with fire when it comes to their long-term treatment. By hiding a concussion, they are increasing the chances of suffering the cumulative effects of multiple concussions.

"That's what causes the horrific lack of quality of life in your 30s," Echlin said.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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