Hockey Season Brings New Focus on Concussions, Traumatic Brain Injuries

The National Hockey League’s 2011-12 season kicked off last night with both the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and the team they edged out last summer, the Vancouver Canucks, losing close fought, first-night match-ups.

Those games (along with a Montreal-Toronto contest) were the first official ones to be played under new NHL rules that severely restrict (but do not entirely ban) hits to the head during play. Long known as a fast and violent game, professional hockey has shown increasing concern for the long-term health of its players in recent years. Concussions and traumatic brain injuries emerged as a concern partly because of changes in the game itself – players are larger, skate faster, hit harder and wear better padding than their predecessors a generation (let alone half a century) ago, and the wear and tear on their bodies shows. The issue became especially salient for the league in the wake of several high-profile injuries that have sidelined star players for extended periods of time.

The most notable examples are Boston’s Marc Savard who has never completely recovered from a grade 2 concussion sustained in March 2010, and Pittsburgh’s Sydney Crosby, arguably the league’s most famous active player, who has not played since the beginning of the year after suffering two hits to the head in rapid succession during games on January 1 and January 5.

During the off-season the league hired a recently retired star, Brendan Shanahan, as its Senior Vice President in charge of player discipline. In a video distributed to all teams before the season began (and readily available to any fan on the NHL website) Shanahan outlined the new, stricter, rules on contact to the head last month. As soon as pre-season games began he indicated he was serious about his new job by passing out an eyebrow-raising number of suspensions for illegal contact, several of which will extend into the regular season.

From the perspective of a Portland concussion and traumatic brain injury attorney the NHL’s attempt to keep its game rough and fast while improving safety must be applauded. Whatever the League’s shortcomings, at least it is making a serious, public effort to cut down on dangerous plays that may lead to brain or spinal cord injuries. The NHL opted not to go as far as college and international hockey and ban hits to the head entirely, but it is hard not to see the new rules as a step in that direction. The game remains rough, even violent, but at least there is the acknowledgement that in the wake of so many traumatic brain injuries, something in the hockey world needs to change.

New York Times: With stricter rules on hits to the head, some NHL stars are split on a full ban

New York Times: Shanahan is enforcing Rules with Gusto