Concussion caution needs to come from players first

Justin Bourne

The culture of hockey is rooted in macho. It’s no longer a special feat of toughness to lose teeth and continue on with the game - it’s expected of players. Guys play on pain-killing shots, they play with fractures and sprains, and worse, they play “through” concussion symptoms.

If the sport’s concussion epidemic is going to improve, that attitude is going to have to change first.

From what I’ve seen, it’s rarely coaches or managers pressuring players to return - it comes from the players in the dressing room.

If a player needed stitches in their face and didn’t return to the game following the zippers, there would undeniably be quiet murmurings about the teammate who was unwilling to put himself at further risk for the good of the team, until the murmurings bubbled over and the guys started giving him a hard time. The face is a long way from the heart, etc, etc. It happens with basically anything that isn’t visibly broken.

Andrew Alberts is just the latest player whose career may be over due to concussions, yet we still frequently see situations like Dale Weise’s, where a player forces himself back into action despite pretty clearly being damaged.

The doctors often take the brunt of the blame, but in a business where you rely heavily on self-reporting from players, it’s not an easy job. The baseline concussion test (at least the one I took when last playing in 2008-09) was more or less a joke (“Say these five words back to me in reverse order”), which leaves players in a situation like Billy Bob in Varsity Blues: it ain’t hard to pass the “true/false” level of difficulty to be deemed good to play.

The team wants the player to be healthy, the player is claiming to be healthy, and can get by the easy test. What’s a doctor to do?

If players are ever going to make the call that they’re not going to return to the game, it has to become acceptable amongst players. The severity of pushing it has to be understood and respected.

More and more we’re seeing how brain injuries are affecting the quality of life of players beyond their careers. Marc Savard, Chris Pronger and numerous other are struggling. But the concern over concussions inside professional dressing rooms remains far smaller than what we see from those outside the game.

It’s considered a tough sport, and if you can’t handle it, move along. You knew the risks.

It can’t be that way anymore. The damage is too lasting, too sad, and too scary for players to continue “toughing it out.” You can ask doctors to pull more players from games, you can ask coaches not to play players who might have head injuries, you can try a number of things.

But as long as teammates expect teammates to “play through,” they will. You’re a family in the dressing room and you don’t want to let anyone down, but in reality, it’s that expectation that’s letting each other down.