This fall resembles the autumn of 2011, in that the National Hockey League season has opened with the game’s Captain Everything, Sidney Crosby, laid low by concussion symptoms.
But the situation is not identical. There has been epochal change in the NHL’s approach to concussions in the past five years.
As part of beefed-up detection and treatment protocols, “central spotters” will be watching every minute of every game from the league office. They have the authority to order a player to leave a game and undergo testing by a team doctor.
Crucially, this wrests at least some level of the decision-making from teams, coaches and individual players.
After years of leaving it up to individual teams, the NHL has also adopted a standard diagnostic test, the internationally recognized Standard Concussion Assessment Tool. The return-to-play protocol has also been standardized, and steep fines will be levied for not following the rules.
The new system is not perfect – it still falls short of mandating that independent physicians attend each game, and it doesn’t deal with the fact that symptoms aren’t always immediate.
But it is unquestionably an improvement. The question is: Why has it taken this long?
There are multiple reasons, some relating to ownership fears of a huge legal settlement with broken former players, others pertaining to hockey’s tough-guy ethos.
Then there’s modern equipment – light and concrete-hard – plus the fact players are, on average, faster and fitter than they were even 10 years ago.
More fundamentally, the NHL has trouble erring on the side of caution. Mr. Crosby, in his understated way, is helping change that. When he fell off after a collision at a recent practice, he said so.
Concussions will happen in any contact sport, he later told reporters. “[You] just have to treat them the right way and make sure they handle it right, and you’re honest.”
Such frankness in dealing with what is a potentially life-altering injury is admirable. Beyond medals and trophies, it may even be Mr. Crosby’s most important contribution to his sport.
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