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NHL Adds Concussion Spotters At Games (And That’s Important)

For years now, the NHL has been the rope in a game of vested interest tug-of-war between those who think the league doesn’t do enough about concussions and those who think that the league is ‘ruining the game’ by taking out things like fighting (in order, one would presume, to lower the number of aforementioned concussions).

Now, though, they’re making a pretty important statement regarding their stance in the fight against brain injury.

The NHL’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly, via the Journal de Montreal, that the league will put ‘spotters’ throughout the stands in attendance at games. These spotters, suggests Daly, will be in attendance to keep an eye out for symptoms of concussions in players on the ice.

This is huge. Like, no, it’s really huge.

The league saw the concussion controversy make a sharp spike twice during the 2014-2015 season. The first time was upon the death of former NHL journeyman Steve Montador, who is believed to have suffered from the effects of CTE and post-concussion syndrome. The second, though, is almost directly relevant to the solution the league is offering up; when Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews was put back in the game following a pretty jarring hit, and seemed very much not okay to play.

It seems unlikely that people won’t remember this, but here’s a quick refresher; Toews, who was experiencing on-ice concussion symptoms, was permitted to re-enter a game by Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville on Toews’ insistence that he was okay. Despite appearing ‘groggy’ and having a history of head injury, the team’s captain claimed that he was fine to go back out — so the coach allowed him to keep playing, which caused an uproar at the time.

The earlier cited article claiming the league doesn’t do enough for concussions mentioned that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had pointed out a difficult problem teams have with properly identifying concussions — with so much of the staff’s attention focused on the game, they often have to rely on what a player says regarding their own condition following a hit. Per ESPN:

“… 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.”

Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin also suggested that there’s only so much a coach can do when the player first gets back to the bench following a big hit — they aren’t doctors. He’s got a point; here’s the league’s solution.

Every player who gets slammed with a monster check could be held out for the rest of the game for precautionary reasons, but that seems far too extreme — so the league will place these spotters in the stands. The spotters will be responsible for keeping an eye on the ice, watching players for concussion symptoms that the coach may not catch if the play isn’t directly by the player in question. They’ll be trained and hired locally, with the same spotters always sitting in a secret location and remaining with the same club all year long.

The NFL has started using this recently, although their spotters are hired by the league and travel from city to city. This season, those spotters will have the power to stop a game and remove a player from the field; for now, the NHL hasn’t confirmed whether their spotters will be given the same rights.

It seems likely, though — the reasoning behind the move, suggests Daly, was the number of teams who were ignoring proper concussion protocol during games.

Obviously, the number of cases where extreme concussion symptoms are kept in a sporting event is somewhat low. In the last year, the most obvious case wasn’t even in hockey; college quarterback Shane Morris was left in a game following a concussion so severe that his teammates were helping him walk. Examples like that are few and far between, and the sporting community has gotten better about refusing to let that happen without repercussions — the team’s then-head coach Brady Hoke, despite once being a community icon, was dismissed by the University of Michigan in December following the incident. Although the reasoning was cited as a poor team record, many believe that his handling of the concussion incident ‘set the tone’ and sealed his fate early on.

Hopefully, the NHL isn’t finished tweaking their concussion protocol with this move — but it’s certainly a big step, and it sure deserves our attention now.

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