Hockey will be next to focus on brain injuries

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In a Duquesne University ballroom overlooking the Mellon Arena where the Penguins' Matt Cooke dropped Boston's Marc Savard to the ice with a shoulder check to the head, some of America's most-esteemed concussion experts at a symposium entitled "Is Football Bad for the Brain" talked this weekend about hockey being next.

Next to adopt change.

Next to attempt head-specific safety measures.

Next, as did the NFL in recent months, to embrace an effort to eliminate dangers for the game of today, for the players of tomorrow and for the potentially scrambled brains of the future.

Kevin Guskiewicz, a Latrobe native and onetime graduate assistant trainer with the Steelers, is directing research at the University of North Carolina into one of the two sports -- soccer being the other -- with traumatic brain injuries such as concussions increasing at rates "greater than we see in football."

When asked to identify the one game operating outside the national consciousness concerning concussions, he stated simply, "Hockey."

This was the same week when Cooke's check set off alarms in Pittsburgh, Boston and the NHL, if not beyond. This was the same week when the league's general managers, at a regularly scheduled meeting, made a unanimous recommendation Wednesday to toughen NHL rules about checks to the head.

Still, Dr. Guskiewicz said, most folks do not know the severity, the jeopardy.

One of his research teams at North Carolina, which for almost a decade has been at the forefront of football-concussion and post-NFL-career studies, has been following two youth hockey teams in the Research Triangle: the 13- to 15-year-old and 15- to 17-year-old Junior Hurricanes. Their study has yet to be published, but Dr. Guskiewicz noted that they have found the average magnitude of a check exerts almost the same amount of g-forces as in the average college collision: 19 g's for hockey, 21g's for football.

This by boys anywhere from two to nine years younger, boys significantly smaller in mass.

"People are surprised by that," Dr. Guskiewicz said. "There are only 2 g's of acceleration difference."

The NFL last fall embarked on new initiatives after star-player concussions, Congressional hearings and further studies that found retired players suffering from long-term effects from brain injuries.

Just last month at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, college players preparing for the draft were given the ImPACT concussion-screening test founded by UPMC's Dr. Mark Lovell and Dr. Joseph Maroon, a member of the NFL's concussion committee. Yet less noticed has been the attention around on-ice concussions.

Hockey Canada held summits in January and December last year. A study published in May suggested that Canadian children ages 5 to 17 sustained 2.8 concussions for every 1,000 on-ice hours. Their rules were revisited and revised, concussion procedures rededicated and redistributed -- to the point where coaches were given cards defining symptoms, testing, management and return-to-play guidelines.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and USA Hockey last month launched an initiative promoting youth-hockey concussion education.

The NCAA in mid-November, after a discussion on the Rules Committee's monthly conference call, e-mailed a memo to all coaches, conference commissioners and officials supervisors reiterating a zero-tolerance policy on hits to the head or neck.

In October, Philadelphia's Mike Richards checked an unsuspecting David Booth with his left shoulder to the Florida winger's head, and Booth was taken off the ice on a stretcher.

Last Sunday, in somewhat the same manner, at almost the same spot on the ice (a few feet inside the offensive blueline), Cooke spilled Savard, who likewise was removed on a stretcher and later diagnosed with what could be a season-ending concussion. Neither Richards or Cooke were suspended under current NHL rules, although several teammates expressed the sentiment -- including Cooke -- that the league needed stricter language.

"I think there needs to be black-and-white rules because, with my hit, technically, in the rule book, I did nothing wrong," Cooke told the Post-Gazette's Shelly Anderson Wednesday, when the NHL announced no action would be taken against him.

"We all want the same safety," Penguins veteran winger Billy Guerin added.

The league's GMs crafted a recommendation that same day, one the league and players association competition committee and then the NHL Board of Governors must approve to become a rule:

"A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted, and/or the principal point of contact, is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty, and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."

Dr. Robert Cantu is an international expert on concussions. He is the co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute where, among many other late athletes, the brain of NHL veteran Reggie Fleming -- 20 known concussions in 13 seasons with six teams -- upon examination showed the same degeneration as boxers and NFL players who likewise began exhibiting resultant behavior changes long before age 50.

Dr. Cantu is based in Boston and part of the Bruins' medical team. So he knows this issue, this hit.

"I think the NHL is looking very seriously into checks to the head when the athlete isn't [looking or prepared]," he said at the seminar presented by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. The Cooke-Savard collision, he added, "will serve as a catalyst.

"Eventually, I believe in the next five years, they'll take those purposeful, head hits out.

"Accidental is one thing. But purposefully checking a person in the head with their head turned should be in the rules and [penalized] more than it is right now."

Chuck Finder can be reached at .


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