Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Ain’t that a kick in the head

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If you’ve been watching the Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks NHL Western Conference final series, your teeth might still be rattling over the hit Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall put on the Hawks’ Martin (or as everyone in Chicago calls him, Marty, because 90 percent of Chicago males are named either Marty or Mike) Havlat in game three. It’s why they coach hockey players to keep their heads up, lest you lose yours.

Havlat suffered a concussion (as far as we can guess, because the NHL won’t say). He was out cold for at least two minutes. And yet Chicago’s leading scorer suited up for game four. Concussion specialist Michael Czarnota, the neuropsychology consultant for the Canadian Hockey League, told CBCSports.ca he was “shocked” to see Havlat back.

But he shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s endemic in all levels of hockey, the sports Czarnota points to as having the most concussions, to have players come back after what is more than getting your bell rung — it’s a serious brain injury.

On May 27, three days after Havlat’s post-concussive return, a study by a Toronto physician found that youth coaches, parents and players knew little about concussions, including whether it is a good idea to return to the ice soon after having one. (The right answer: no.) Among the study’s findings, which I’ve taken from a press release:

Up to two-thirds of players had the mistaken impression that a player does not have to lose consciousness to have suffered a concussion. One quarter of adults and up to half of children could not identify any symptoms of a concussion or could name only one symptom of a concussion. About one-half of players and one-fifth of adults mistakenly believed concussions are treated with medication or physical therapy. About one-quarter of all players did not know if an athlete experiencing symptoms of a concussion should continue playing.

The study also found that in Canada, hockey players ages 5-17 “have about 2.8 concussions per 1,000 player-hours of ice hockey while university and elite amateur players sustain rates of 4.2 and 6.6 concussions per 1,000 player hours.”

The study was released only two weeks after Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill requiring any youth showing signs of a concussion to get clearance from a medical professional before playing again. That was inspired by Zackery Lystedt, who at 13 suffered a hard hit in a football game, went back in, and then was hit a second time and put into a coma for 30 days.

The Toronto study also was released the same day USA Today ran a story about former NHL star Keith Primeau pledging (along with 120 athletes) to donate his brain after his death to a medical study looking at chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That is a degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s, found in people who have had multiple concussions. Primeau warned of the risks of concussions — to the point he won’t let his kids play football:

Concussions can be very hard to detect since not everyone passes out. Nausea, blurry vision and confusion are other symptoms. Within the past several years, increased awareness about concussions and “post-concussion syndrome” has led most professional and college teams to start using computer-based programs that measure attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time to one-hundredth of a second.

It is too costly for most high schools and youth programs, where it could help coaches and trainers identify problems and sideline players. Concussions account for almost one in 10 sports injuries for people ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet nearly 41% of high school athletes return to action too soon after concussions.

Primeau endured a career of blows to his head but adds that he won’t forget one that knocked him out:

“I spent the night in the hospital, flew the next day and was back in the lineup that day. That was the beginning of my demise.”

He now knows resting — and not playing until the concussion is healed — can help prevent long-term damage. He has started to use tests to determine if his athletes have concussions and has made decisions to keep kids off the ice.

“I can tell when a child has suffered a concussion,” he says. “I do not put them back on the ice. I’ve told parents I’m not putting their child back in. And I’ve actually had instances where parents will want to go in a different direction and the kids will go out on the ice and get sick.”

And other times, players are not honest. That was true of Primeau’s oldest son, Correy, who plays club-level hockey for Neumann College in Aston, Pa., and respects his father’s concerns.

“I played once with a concussion last year,” Correy says. “I wouldn’t do it again. I had trouble afterward for about a week, but I just didn’t want to let my team down at the time.”

As for Martin Havlat, who left game four after eight minutes when he took another hard hit, other hockey players are saying he was crazy — and a bad influence — for suiting up again. From the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Under the NHL’s absurd don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy governing injury disclosure in the postseason, no one will say for sure if Havlat was concussed. So it was left for media voices to speculate. Speaking on The Fan 590 in Toronto, former NHL defenceman Jeff Beukeboom– whose career was ended by severe post-concussion symptoms– decried Havlat’s rapid return.

“I think it sets a very bad example for the kids,” said Beukeboom, who feels players will be vulnerable to coercion by teams if there’s the false impression of a quick remedy after a concussion.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie– whose son has battled post-concussion syndrome from a hockey incident– was vocal on both radio and TV questioning … Havlat rushing back into play.

“The seven-day rule is actually from when the athlete is symptom-free,” McKenzie [said]. “But if he has a headache for three days after being hit, he’s supposed to wait seven days from the time he was symptom-free, not from when he was hit in the head.

“All of this is aimed at protecting the brain, which doesn’t respond well to second impact. In fact, there’s a condition called, I think, second-impact syndrome. If a concussed athlete, say Havlat, goes back into game action when his brain is concussed, if the brain gets a second contact directly on the same part of the brain, death can be instantaneous.”

Expect the debate to continue in the media so long as the NHL remains in denial about head shots.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] to suffer a concussion (you don’t), and that hockey players at the youth level suffer 2.8 concussions per 1,000 player ice-hours. Also, this year Washington became the first state to require a youth player diagnosed with a […]

  2. […] longer is a player who gets a little foggy someone who is “dinged.” From pro leagues on down, concussions — brain injuries — are being taken seriously more than they ever have. […]


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