A change in opinion on concussions

In working on my piece about concussions in sports for this week’s Times, perhaps the thing I was surprised most about was the fact that four of the five people I interviewed for the article (Luke Judson, Wayne Strachan, Shane Beckett, and Chad Canfield) all had suffered a concussion when they played.
From talking to those four guys about what had happened to them during their respective incidents, it was then that I realized how important this topic of concussions in sports really is.
For a long time, it was considered more of an act of heroism if a guy was able to bounce right back from getting a blow to head, and going right back out and helping his team to a victory, such as Paul Kariya’s “off the floor and on the board” goal during the 2003 Stanley Cup final.
However, if someone were to come back into a game right away after suffering a big hit today, they would be considered absolutely crazy.
This issue is nothing new in sports, especially when it comes to our national passion in hockey. But with what happened to Sidney Crosby earlier this season, and all of the trials and tribulations that have followed since then, everyone has started to stand up and take notice.
Personally speaking, I thought the whole topic of checks to the head in hockey was much ado about nothing a few years ago, believing it was more of an issue of agenda pushing by networks such as TSN to try and change the game, or that OHL commissioner David Branch was going completely over the top with regards to the suspensions he was handing out.
But one incident would change my mind in a big hurry, and that is what happened to Kitchener Rangers’ defenceman Ben Fanelli in October, 2009.
For those who may not be familiar with the situation, Fanelli, in his first season in the OHL, was slammed into the boards from behind by Erie Otters’ forward Michael Liambas, resulting in the Rangers’ player suffering skull and facial fractures and being rushed to hospital in critical condition.
Following that play, no one knew if Fanelli would ever play again due to the extent of his injuries. Liambas, meanwhile, ended up receiving a year-long suspension from the OHL, effectively ending his major junior hockey career.
It was a long and lengthy process for Fanelli, who didn’t even start skating with the team again for another year after the hit. But on Sept. 23, he returned to the lineup for the opening game of the season to a deafening roar from the Rangers’ faithful, in what was arguably one of the most emotional moments in hockey all year.
Seeing what happened to Fanelli really changed my point of view on how hits to head in hockey are looked at with regards to suspensions and that sort of thing. But I still think there remains more issues at this point in time in regards to changing the culture of the game.
For as many people who believe that people like Branch and Brendan Shanahan are doing the right thing in handing out harsher suspensions for hits to the head in the OHL and the NHL, there are people such as Don Cherry who think the game is slowly circling the drain and that this policing of head shots is destroying the sport from its roots.
For those type of people, it reminds me an awful lot of the stubbornness people had in stock car racing with regards to head and neck restraint safety during the early 2000s, which led me to believe that nothing will really change in hockey among those people unless someone is killed.
In NASCAR, a lot has been made about how the sport has become super safe since seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500. But it took his death, along with those of Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty, and Blaise Alexander, before the sanctioning body made sweeping changes to make the drivers safer.
That’s not just the case in NASCAR, though, but in other sports, too, as no one thought about wearing batting helmets in baseball until 30 years after the death of Ray Chapman in 1920. And helmets in the NHL didn’t become mandatory until a decade following Bill Masterson’s fatal head injury.
I really hope it doesn’t come to that point, but I really think that for those stubborn hockey fans, and even those in sports like football, the worst-case scenario could be the only way that those minds are changed.
And while Crosby’s situation is obviously what made everyone stand up and take notice on a huge scale, it’s really a shame that this topic hasn’t been brought up much sooner.
Otherwise, the careers of players such as Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, and most recently Marc Savard wouldn’t have come to premature ends.

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