Jason Dickinson was angry the moment he was pulled from a game to be checked for a concussion.
On the receiving end of a hit that warranted a second look, the Dallas Stars forward later realized the precaution wasn’t such a bad thing.
“Today’s game they’re doing a lot, and they are focusing on concussions,” Dickinson said. “If you’re not feeling fine, then I think it’s a great method to kind of keep guys aware that something might be wrong.”
The NHL last fall settled a lawsuit with retired players who sued the league and accused it of failing to protect them from head injuries or warning them of the risks involved with playing. Yet progress has been made to the point that almost half of current NHL Players’ Association representatives surveyed by The Associated Press and Canadian Press said they believe the league is doing all it can to protect players from concussions.
Fifteen of the 31 player reps said the league is doing what it can. The other 16 were noncommittal.
“It never stops in terms of always trying to learn more, make improvements and always try to do better,” Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares said. “To just sit there and think, ‘Yeah, we’re doing enough,’ I don’t think has ever really been the approach.”
The NHL formed a concussion study group in 1997, cracked down on certain hits after the 2004-05 lockout, instituted a formal protocol and a rule against head contact in 2010, and added spotters in 2015. While plenty of debate simmers among former players about how much information they were given about the risks of repeated hits to the head, many of those currently in the league believe they are adequately informed.
“The knowledge that we get is about as much as they can send out to us and make us go through at the beginning of the year, learning and being aware of it,” said Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo, who will play in the Stanley Cup Final beginning Monday. “They do a good job on the awareness aspect. I don’t know if there’s anything else with technology and helmets that you could necessarily do as of right now that we don’t know of yet.”
Hall of Famer Eric Lindros said he believes concussions in hockey are inevitable because of the speed and physical nature of the sport. NHL Alumni Association executive director Glenn Healy said it is impossible to eliminate them.
The league and players instead have worked recently toward a balance of prohibiting certain types of hits with in-game penalties and suspensions to curb the kind of behavior that used to be commonplace. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the effort began with former vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan and the cultural change of letting up on dangerous hits and shedding the mentality that anyone should just play through a head injury.
The league has been steadfast in denying a connection between repeated hits to the head and degenerative brain injuries but has nonetheless pushed changes to better protect players.
“This has been a collaboration of the league and the Players’ Association to focus on player health and safety and to make sure that we’re making a game that’s played at high speeds in an enclosed environment and is a collision sport, to make it as safe as possible,” Bettman said. “As the technology and the science and the medicine evolve, we continue to evolve what we’re doing together.”
San Jose’s Brenden Dillon has noticed significant improvement since he entered the league in 2012.
“Not just the health people but the coaching staff, the trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches, they’re all pretty aware of things in regards to concussions and they’re pretty good about taking their time and making sure guys are healthy before they come back,” Dillon said. “This is a game we play, a life we’ve chosen but at the same time we want to have a life after.”
Several players praised the addition of concussion spotters who can request players be pulled from a game in progress. It has caused plenty of consternation from competitive athletes who think they’re good to go, but, like seatbelt and motorcycle helmet laws, it serves to protect players from themselves.
“Guys on our team have gone through it where they fight to try to stay on the ice, but they’ve been taken off the ice against their will and been tested,” Tampa Bay Lightning winger Alex Killorn said. “If they pass the test, then they get put back on. That’s been a good improvement.”
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews wants a universal program with the best doctors and protocols so players can get the best treatment. Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said he believes the punishment for a second illegal hit should be harsher. New Jersey goaltender Corey Schneider and Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt wish there was better post-career care.
“I think they’ve taken a step in the right direction,” Winnipeg Jets forward Adam Lowry said. “Obviously more can still be done, but that’s kind of going to be a process to figure out what’s the best step moving forward.”