When a league’s concussion protocol works like it’s intended, players will get mad. There’s no way around it. Connor McDavid, the Oilers’ young star, was yanked off the ice after hitting his head in last night’s home loss to Minnesota, and he was pissed.
The NHL’s concussion spotters were introduced last season, and this year the program has been bulked up by a centralized staff in New York, monitoring every game and watching replays for players who have suffered blows to the head or any potential effects of brain trauma. When they see that, the spotters have the power to call up in-arena officials and have that player removed from the game to undergo a mandatory evaluation before he is allowed to return.
Last night, the spotters spotted McDavid going down hard:
At the next stoppage in play, McDavid was removed and escorted to a quiet room to take a baseline test, which takes about 20 minutes. He was eventually cleared to return, but not before missing the final 6:28 of the second period. That included a big five-on-three man advantage for the Oilers, on which they didn’t score.
Speaking after the game, McDavid said he was surprised to be taken out, and annoyed that it happened during a power play, on which Edmonton sure could have used his scoring.
“I was pretty shocked, to be honest,” said McDavid. “I hit my mouth on the ice. You reach up and grab your mouth when you get hit in the mouth, it’s a pretty normal thing. Obviously the spotter thought he knew how I was feeling. So he pulled me off.
“Shitty time in the game, too, a partial five-on-three. If we capitalize it can change the game.”
The action proved controversial, with McDavid and his teammates and fans all blasting the decision. Their first concern is, naturally, winning, and not having their best player on the ice for a large chunk of a game they lost in overtime rankles.
That’s natural, but this quote from Oilers forward Pat Maroon shows the sort of culture the league is up against if it tries to genuinely address concussions:
“This is a man’s game,” Maroon said. “People are going to get hit, get high-sticked. They’re going to go through the middle and get hit. That’s part of hockey, and that’s why we have all this gear that protects us.”
There’s the sense that leaving a game represents a lack of toughness, which is absurd when it comes to brain damage and its long-term effects, but there’s also the sense that players know better than any TV-watching league employees whether they’re in a condition to play. And that’s true! McDavid did know better than any outside observer if he had rattled his brain. But those observers also know that McDavid is 100 percent going to lie about it if asked, even if asked by his coaches and trainers. That’s why the NHL’s concussion policy brooks no discussion; it wouldn’t work otherwise.
Which isn’t to say that it works now. While our understanding of head trauma is increasing yet massively incomplete, one of the things we’ve come to learn in recent years is that the worst of the lifelong effects don’t come from the big hits, but rather the accumulation of small ones. Every perfectly clean check, even to the body, rattles the brain a bit as the head rapidly changes direction. You can’t legislate those out of hockey, and you can’t pull a player off the ice for them.
What the concussion spotters can do is remove players from immediate danger. We know that players will play through undiagnosed concussions, and we know that suffering a concussion makes players more susceptible to suffering another, and we know that suffering multiple ones in a short period of time can force players out of the game for a while.
(From a pure business standpoint, if something like this protocol would have prevented Sidney Crosby from missing most of a calendar year, that’d have made the entire thing worth it for the league. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the concussion spotters pay closer attention to McDavid and players of his caliber.)
While it’s tempting to feel sympathetic toward the league for being noble enough to antagonize its players in the name of player safety, never forget that nobility isn’t the driving factor here.
“It’s all for liability reasons, right? At the end of the day, isn’t it?” asked McDavid’s linemate Milan Lucic. “That’s the reason why the NFL has cracked down on it, and that’s the reason why the NHL has cracked down on it. It’s there to protect the player.”
Protecting the players from themselves, yes, but ultimately protecting the league. Multiple class action lawsuits against the NHL are pending, and have been joined by hundreds of players who claim the league didn’t do enough to protect them from concussions when they played. Now that we all know—to some extent—the dangers of concussions, it’s all about being able to show you’ve taken actions. That NHL can point to its concussion spotters and say We took this scientifically sound step to remove brain-injured players from danger, it’ll play that much better for them in future suits.
Don’t let the cynicism of the motivation for the concussion protocol distract from its universally beneficial result. This is the rare case where a league’s self-interest requires that it act in the interests of its players’ health, and that it do so in circumstances where the players can’t be trusted to do it themselves. Everyone wins here, even if no one is quite happy about it.