- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Kirk Muller doesn’t know if he suffered a concussion during his playing career. Sure, he got hit in the head, but they weren’t diagnosed in the same way.

Now the Carolina Hurricanes’ coach, Muller’s playing days ended before the 2004-05 lockout. Washington Capitals right wing Mike Knuble’s career has spanned the time when it was called “getting your bell rung” and nothing more to an era of quiet rooms and protocol where it’s recognized as a brain injury.

“Back in the olden days you just shook it off, seeing stars and all that,” Knuble said.

Now, the NHL is seeing its stars and numerous other players miss action with concussions. Capitals leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom has missed 15 games and counting; Jay Beagle was out for 31 games this season, the and face of the league, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, has played just eight games in the past 13 months because of concussions.

An unofficial count by Sirius-XM radio’s NHL Home Ice lists 28 players out with concussions or concussion-like symptoms.

“The NHL has a concussion crisis,” said agent Allan Walsh, who has had more than a half-dozen clients suffer one in the past two seasons.

And while it is debated whether concussions have sharply increased or the awareness of them has, it’s a multilevel crisis because it involves the rules of the game, player safety and long-term health [-] and symptoms can vary from one person to another.

It’s the mystery nature of the problem that makes it even scarier.

“You just got to try and go throughout the day normal. It’s a tough thing,” Beagle said. “It’s something you can’t X-ray it and be like, ‘Yeah, your bone’s broken.’ It goes by how you feel.”

‘Wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies’

More than a handful of Capitals acknowledged suffering at least one concussion during their playing careers, to differing degrees of severity. Not knowing the symptoms to look for might be the hardest part.

Beagle had that problem, too. Knocked out in a fight with Penguins tough guy Arron Asham on Oct. 13, he was eager to return to the game and felt good to go for the next day’s practice, too. But doctors and trainer Greg Smith held him out, something he was thankful for when he started to feel out of sorts.

“I honestly didn’t know. I came in and even for a month I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know why I’m sitting out. I feel fine.’ And Smitty’s like, he kept asking me questions and sensitivity to light and things [-] noises [-] that aggravates you,” Beagle said. “And then I’d get thinking about it. I was like, yeah, you know, when I’m driving to the rink at night to come watch the game and I see the lights on the cops’ cars and I’d look away and it hurts.

“I never really noticed that until he said sensitivity to light, noise [-] things like that. And it’s something that I was doing, and it didn’t register to me.”

For defenseman Karl Alzner, it was easy to pinpoint because of a headache he couldn’t shake and vision that was “blurry and slow.” Backstrom claimed to be feeling “pretty good” three days after an elbow to the head from Rene Bourque, then with Calgary, gave him a concussion. But he has skated just five minutes in the past month.

There’s no set rehab plan, just the recently implemented protocol that protects players from themselves and forces anyone showing head injury symptoms to sit out and pass baseline tests before progressing.

“Concussions? Oh, I’ve had a couple. The longest one was probably about seven days,” Capitals forward Jeff Halpern said. “It’s frustrating because you have no control over it. I don’t think anyone in the world really understands why it happens or the extent from one hit to another. It’s a frustrating process because you want to be in as soon as possible.”

Forward Matt Hendricks explained that a sort of “depression” sets in with a concussion because of an inability to make progress or being around the rink with teammates. That feeling can happen as part of any long-term injury, but concussions are on a different level.

“It’s by far the worst injury,” Beagle said. “I wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies.”

Beagle doesn’t have to. It’s an epidemic that is sweeping the league, with 65 players missing action with concussions as of late January, according to a running tally by Canadian TV network CBC. The league recently changed its disclosure policy and no longer releases official numbers.

Is it an epidemic?

Given the quantity of players who have suffered from concussions or concussion-like symptoms in recent years, it’s no secret that the NHL and its players association have been trying to curb the problem. New rules punishing certain hits to the head, such as blindside checks, were implemented to cut down on head injuries.

“I’m not saying and I haven’t said the NHL has ignored the issue or run away from it, just that the league hasn’t done enough,” said Walsh, whose clients include St. Louis Blues forward David Perron and Ottawa Senators All-Star winger Milan Michalek.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said during NHL All-Star Weekend that both sides were exploring the problem.

“I don’t think anybody will be happy until we can figure out a way to eliminate them, and there are a whole lot of people that given the nature of the sport don’t think that’s possible,” Fehr said. “So what we’ve got to try and do is we’ve got to try do two things: We’ve got to try and minimize the incidents of concussions to the greatest extent possible, and we have to try and provide the very best care and precautionary care that we can figure out a way to provide to people.”

In a December interview with the Canadian Press, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “I don’t believe it’s a crisis; I don’t believe it’s an epidemic.”

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren in December pointed to increased awareness of concussions rather than a jump in the injuries themselves. But estimates are that concussions are up at least 8 percent this season, according to the New York Times.

NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, whose primarily responsible for doling out suspensions and fines, believes new rules have helped cut down head injuries from illegal hits.

“I don’t think there’s one magic solution. But we do observe on a nightly basis a majority of players making better and safer decisions and adjusting the style with which they play,” Shanahan said. “The concussions that we’ve seen reported this year, they’re not as much from hits to the head from opposition.”

Long-term effects

That players often miss months with concussions is troubling. St. Louis’ Perron missed 97 games; Capitals defenseman Mike Green was out 26 of the final 28 in the 2010-11 regular season.

But the problem extends well beyond that, making it a life ailment as much as it is a sports injury.

“The effects are not only during the playing career; they can linger,” Fehr said. “It’s an issue in which I hope and I believe players have a shared interest with the owners in making sure this is done right.”

Dr. Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University has been researching cases of the brain ailment known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and found it in four different deceased hockey players, including New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard. He said hockey is not as dangerous to long-term brain injuries as boxing or football, but sports in general must be re-evaluated.

“The human head is not designed to take severe punishment,” Nowinski said Tuesday. “There’s no question there needs to be a fundamental and dramatic change to how the head is dealt with in sports.”

The summer deaths of Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak brought concussions, and specifically fighting, into sharper focus. But Bettman said fighting was down 25 percent this season, pointing to other reasons for concussions.

“It seems to be coming from accidents, teammates colliding, players falling on their head, pucks to the head,” Bettman said during his annual state of the NHL address. “Obviously, there are some concussions caused by fighting, just as there are some concussions caused by getting hit in the head by pucks, but nobody’s advocating using a foam rubber puck.”

That’s true, but Walsh and Nowinski both pointed to possibilities such as softer, smaller shoulder and elbow pads, taking out the trapezoid, putting the red line back in to slow down the game and implementing better helmets to make the game safer.

“It’s up to the hockey experts whatever changes are made within the game,” Nowinski said. “I think everything needs to be on the table.”

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