Connor McDavid

New NHL Concussion Protocol

When Connor McDavid, a new young player for the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) Edmonton Oilers fell hard during a game and grabbed his chin afterward, NHL concussion protocol dictated he be pulled from the game. That move, however, is a switch for an organization that faces ongoing lawsuits from players who allege they were never warned about the risks of repeated head injuries, and not properly protected by the league or their teams when those injuries happened. Although not everyone is happy with the new NHL concussion protocol, those in the media who follow the sport say developing the protocol was necessary.

Connor McDavid Removed Thanks to New NHL Concussion Rules

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers were embroiled in a game against the Minnesota Wild when McDavid took a huge fall in the second period and hit his face on the ice. McDavid then grabbed his chin, at which point hockey league concussion spotters recognized that McDavid was at risk of a concussion and had him removed from the game for a baseline test. That test takes 20 minutes. McDavid was cleared to return to the game, but he missed the end of the second period and a two-man advantage for his team. His team later lost the game.

McDavid and the Oilers fans were upset he was pulled from the game, but critics and other athletes who understand the consequences of repeated head injuries acknowledge the new NHL concussion protocol, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction.

NHL Faces Concussion Lawsuits

The National Hockey League already faces lawsuits from former players who allege the organization knew about the risks of repeated head injuries but failed to warn them about those risks. Dan LaCouture is part of an NHL lawsuit filed by former players who say they had no idea that there was an increased risk of Parkinson’s, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or dementia linked to concussions.

Emails from high-ranking NHL officials, including NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, that was unsealed by a U.S. federal court earlier in 2016 allegedly reference hockey fights and link them to concussions and depression. Also reportedly among the emails was a 2014 email from NHL senior vice-president of communications, Gary Meagher, who wrote that the league was not in the business of making the game safer.

Other sports organizations, including the National Football League, either currently faces or have faced similar lawsuits alleging athletes were not adequately protected from serious brain injuries by the league and teams that employed them.

Updated NHL Concussion Protocol

As a result of those lawsuits, and, perhaps, increased media coverage of brain injuries, the NHL has implemented a concussion protocol. First announced in 2011 and updated in 2016, the NHL concussion protocol (called the Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol) requires players who show one of a number of signs of a concussion be pulled from the game. Those signs include clutching their head, being slow to get up, lying motionless on the ice, and showing a blank or vacant look after experiencing direct or indirect head trauma.

In the last two years, concussion spotters at individual arenas and at the centralized New York office have been added to the protocol. Spotters at the arenas are hired by the home team and do not have extensive medical training. Centralized spotters, which were introduced in the 2016 NHL concussion protocol, are hired by the NHL and have no link to any NHL teams. They watch the games via television and have the authority to demand a player leave the game, regardless of whether the team or athlete agrees with the decision.

Players who report symptoms of a concussion, including headache, dizziness, or nausea, must also be pulled from a game if they have suffered a direct or indirect blow to the head. Once pulled from the game, the player must be evaluated by a team physician and/or athletic trainer to determine if there is a concussion. If no concussion is found, the player can return to play at the physician’s discretion, as Connor McDavid did. If a concussion is diagnosed, the player must be kept from play and/or practice for the remainder of the day. When symptoms resolve, players must have a neuropsychological evaluation before returning to activity.

Athletes are notorious in their stubbornness to admit when they have suffered an injury—and teams might be honest about the possibility of concussions, especially where star players are concerned. That may be one of the reasons why the National Hockey League started using a variety of concussion spotters, including the Central League Spotters—certified athletic trainers who work at a centralized office in New York—and arena spotters.

 Not All Players Happy with the New NHL Concussion Protocol

Connor McDavid was unhappy he was pulled from the game, given his team lost and he was missing during crucial moments. Players who have suffered repeated head trauma, however, know how important it is for athletes to be examined quickly and prevented from injuring themselves further. Many in the media who follow the NHL, say while the NHL concussion rules aren’t perfect, but they are a good start.

Some players, meanwhile, argue that hockey is a man’s sport, and they need to be tough enough to stay in the game. What they might not know is how devastating chronic traumatic encephalopathy can be, for victims and their families.

They might also want to keep in mind that they are role models to young athletes, who will base their opinions about head trauma and playing hurt on what they see their heroes doing. If they see professional athletes taking the risk of concussions and brain damage seriously—and honoring the requirements of the NHL concussion protocol—young athletes might take their health seriously, too. If young athletes see professionals brushing off concussion symptoms and demanding to return to play, it’s possible the young athletes will follow suit and put themselves at risk.

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