OTTAWA – Sidney Crosby’s spectacular return to the National Hockey League Monday night has fans across North America breathing a collective sigh of relief. He scored two goals and notched two assists as his Pittsburgh Penguins downed the New York Islanders 5-0.
While his brain may be healed enough to return to the ice, critics are warning he and his fellow hockey players won’t be safe until the NHL tackles concussions.
The 24-year-old Canadian star of the Pittsburgh Penguins was sidelined by a concussion for 10 months. Crosby was injured in January when he sustained two hard hits in back-to-back games.
The length and pace of his recovery is an anomaly in a sport where players often feel pressure to get back on the ice as soon as possible.
Crosby, on the advice of his doctors, stayed off the ice until the concussion-related symptoms including sensitivity to light and loud noises, dizziness and fatigue were completely gone.
He may be back, but the most current science suggests that Crosby will be even more susceptible to injury than before.
“We know that once you sustain one brain injury, that is one of the major risk factors for another,” said Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
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Despite their increased vulnerability to concussions, players will return to a work environment rife with risks to play a game that is often their sole livelihood and their favourite activity.
Cusimano says asking a player to give up a job he has worked so hard to achieve is too much pressure to bear. Instead, he says, the NHL needs to step up and change the way it handles concussions, focusing on prevention and adequate treatment of injured players.
“They have to step up to the plate and accept social responsibility. Their players have to be kept safe,” he said. “It should be your right to work in a place that is safe, as safe as possible. If we know about environmental risks, in any other workplace we try to minimize them.”
Concussions simply aren’t a necessary part of sport and society needs to realize it, said Dr. Paul Echlin, a sports medicine specialist.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said. “It’s the refusal to change the way we play the game.”
Echlin said all levels of hockey have to address the intentional violence in the game.
Jesse Wallin, a former NHL player forced by a concussion to retire, says it is impossible and undesirable to eliminate risk from hockey.
“There an element of danger in the sport and that’s why a lot of guys play it,” he said.
The Red Deer Rebels coach says he believes the league is taking the rights steps when it comes to managing risk of injury.
“As far as the risk and danger in the sport, you are never going to eliminate all injuries,” Wallin says. “If the player has been given clearance to play and wants to play, I don’t think anyone would be putting a player at risk that shouldn’t go back.
Spurred on by public pressure and a growing number of high profile injuries, the NHL has taken some steps to improve player safety.
“With all the concussions we have seen over the past few years, I think it has made the league stand up and say: ‘We have to do something,’” said Dr. Mark Aubry, the chief medical officer with Hockey Canada.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in March unveiled tighter rules on hits to the head and stronger return-to-play criteria for injured players.
The new policy requires players who show signs of a concussion to be evaluated off of the team bench by the team physician instead of ice-side by a trainer.
Later in the year, the NHL tightened Rule 48 by prohibiting head shots, not just lateral or blindside hits. Still, the rule has a lot of room for interpretation by referees, meaning fans and players will still see head shots on the ice.
“I think that is positive in the sense that the league is listening,” he said, adding that how Crosby was treated shows an evolution in the way players are treated.
“We tend now to keep players out and we’ve kept the players out longer than what they’ve traditionally been told,” he said.
Crosby’s injury and recovery will be a case study for the league to learn from, said certified athletic trainer Dustin Fink.
“He is going to be followed closely afterwards,” he said. “It’s good to know that if it is treated correctly and done right you can get back to what you want to do.
Fink said one of the most important lessons for player and coaches from Crosby’s injury is to let the symptoms – not the league, the coaches or the player – be the guide when it comes to return to play.