NHL still grappling with concussions

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Hours before the Stanley Cup finals began, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman proudly proclaimed that concussions are down across the league and there are numbers to back him up.

That does not mean the league has figured out how to prevent head injuries among its players. Or that the numbers tell the whole story.

According to data from STATS provided to The Associated Press, there were 53 concussions during the regular season, a sharp decline from the 78 reported during the league’s last full season two years ago.

But even Bettman said there is only so much the league can do about a player hiding a head injury to stay on the ice.

“Obviously, it’s difficult for us to get into a player’s head, no pun intended, with this concussion discussion,” he said. “But if a player is going to not follow the protocol, not say exactly what he’s feeling, that’s pretty difficult to address.”

Dr. Jeff Kutcher, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based neurologist who works with NHL players believed to have concussions, wasn’t sure the lower numbers indicated a dramatic change.

“I’m not surprised that the numbers are down, but I wouldn’t read too much into those numbers,” Kutcher said.

The NHL’s concussion protocol, like other leagues, requires players to get a team doctor’s OK before they can return to play. They are taken to a quiet place for evaluation, questions and tests of their memory, balance and general awareness.

Players, though, seem to be able to skate around the protocol.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski said he avoided return-to-play protocol after he went head first into the boards during the playoffs. He wanted to keep playing. The Montreal Canadiens were criticized for letting forward Dale Weise return to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals after a blindside hit sent him to the dressing room. General manager Marc Bergevin insisted the team did not know Weise had a concussion until the next day and that the league’s protocol was followed.

“It’s flawed, but I’m not a doctor,” Bergevin said. “We all worry about our players, but we can only go by what we’re given.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan, who was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs to be their president two months ago after he was the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, said it is good for the game that concussions are part of the conversation.

“When there are situations like we’ve had in the playoffs, whether it is a hit to the head or mis-reporting, it gets put in the spotlight and it should,” Shanahan said. “That is part of the continuing change of culture, and it’s going to be an ongoing process. I don’t think there ever will be a perfect system because players are always going to want to play.”

The NHL Players Association says it has taken steps to educate its players about the dangers of concussions, including bringing doctors to each team before the season for discussions.

“The players understand the seriousness of concussions, and along with our consulting doctors we continue to discuss with them the importance of early diagnosis, treatment and proper recovery,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said.

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