SCIENCE

The NHL Can’t Figure Out Its Concussion Protocol

Probably because they don't want to

SCIENCE
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Apr 10, 2017 at 1:33 PM ET

Though the NHL approach to player health doesn’t have the notoriety of the NFL’s, their woeful incompetence on head injuries is every bit as deserving of mainstream ridicule and maudlin Oscar bait. Like the NFL, the NHL has had former players sue the league over their poor handling of their concussions. Recent revelations from a medical expert connected to the league signal serious flaws with how the NHL handles brain trauma.

According to Frank Conidi, a Miami-based neurologist with experience treating players for the Florida Panthers, the NHL’s Concussion Subcommittee has not had a single neurologist included as a member since at least 2010. In an interview with TSN, Conidi attributed the utter absence of his profession as a “turf war” waged by Concussion Subcommittee neuropsychologists that “don’t want to let go” of their control.

The difference between neuropsychologists and neurologists is far from trivial. Neuropsychologists, generally speaking, aren’t medical professionals and usually cannot prescribe medication. They do, of course, undergo significant training, but their academic training is distinct from the four years of medical school neurologists receive before undergoing a medical internship and neurological fellowship. Intentionally constructing a concussion committee without including both kinds of neurological professionals is a recipe for inadequate treatment.

It’s not surprising that the concussion protocol created by the Concussion Subcommittee has been criticized for missing the mark. Corey Crawford, goalie of the Chicago Blackhawks, took a slapshot to the head from Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber, the winner of the NHL’s Hardest Shot skills competition three years running. (Weber’s shot has been recorded at 108 mph.) As the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine described the aftermath, Crawford “stiffened, fell back on his posterior and appeared stunned by the shot.” Then, like many of the men suing the NHL for refusing to recognize the proliferation of CTE and its effect on their lives, Crawford kept playing.

The committee’s refusal to include the most qualified professionals—Conidi accused the NHL of flatly denying his request that they invite neurologists to the committee—is putting their players at serious risk. In his qualified opinion, the NFL, which again, earned the condemnation of an accented-Will Smith vehicle, has developed a superior approach to concussion prevention and treatment. In 2011, the NFL promised a joint $11 million dollar contribution to concussion research alongside the NFL Player’s Association, and in recent years, the league has hesitantly conceded that repeated skull bashing might, in rare circumstance, lead to brain problems. The NHL isn’t even sure CTE exists. And even that assumes they’re telling the troof.

The NFL also requires that any player removed from a game receive clearance from a neurologist before playing. To no one’s shock, the NHL has no such requirement.

Also, the NFL settled their concussion-related class action suit, paying out over a billion dollars to the former players and their estates. Meanwhile, the NHL continues to deny any wrongdoing, earning every bit of agent Allan Walsh’s comparisons between the league and Big Tobacco.

If the league doesn’t want their sport associated with the health benefits of a morning cigarette, they need to overhaul their approach to head injuries. Letting neurologists help shape their concussion protocol would be a start.