Hockey Notebook: League keeps eye on injuries

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According to the UPMC website, between 1.7 million and 3 million Americans suffer sports- or recreation-related concussions each year.

Through the Heads Up Pittsburgh program -- a partnership between the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, UPMC and the Community College of Allegheny County -- and a few other actions, the PIHL is making sure its athletes are aware of concussions and taking steps to limit the number of head injuries in the league.

The Heads Up Pittsburgh program began in 2011 to give free concussion baseline testing and parental education programs to youth hockey players. But the program was expanded a year later to include athletes of all sports from ages 10 to 14.

The program hasn't reduced concussions in the PIHL -- if anything it has increased the number reported. But it has raised awareness.

"There are more concussions now, but we're more aware of the situation," PIHL commissioner Ed Sam said. "More are being reported as more become educated and aware of concussion symptoms."

A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in Sept. 2013 by William Meehan, Rebekah Mannix, Michael O'Brien and Michael Collins concluded that 31 percent of patients (148 of 731) included in the study at Boston Children's Hospital and UPMC reported having suffered an undiagnosed concussion previously and that these undiagnosed concussions are associated with a higher "loss of consciousness rate" if another concussion were to happen.

Likewise, according to Advocates for Injured Athletes, if a player receives another hit to the head before a brain fully heals from a concussion, it can prolong recovery and result in many long-term problems, including death.

The baseline testing done at UMPC does not prevent or treat concussions. It is a test done to establish data on a person when he or she is in a normal state. According to UPMC, this helps the doctors "manage the injury more accurately" when it is diagnosed later.

If a PIHL player does come down with concussion symptoms, Sam said the player is not allowed to return to action until he or she has been cleared by a medical doctor.

The PIHL requires that all its athletes get baseline testing prior to playing in a PIHL game. For athletes under the age of 12, the test is recommended to be taken each year, but athletes 13 years and older can get the test every two years. The PIHL athletes can get the baseline testing done anywhere; it does not have to be at UMPC.

The PIHL has also tried to limit concussions in a few other ways as well.

Sam said the league is working with its players to improve the strength in the neck and head areas, which could help prevent concussions. In line with that thinking, the Heads Up Pittsburgh program gave neck-strengthening kits to the first 2,000 participants in its free neurocognitive baseline testing last summer.

The PIHL is also working with league officials to crack down on hits that have a greater chance to lead to head injuries.

"We're doing everything we can to limit blows to the head," Sam said. "The officials are knowingly aware of it and are instructed to call penalties for those violations. Hopefully by continually getting penalized for those actions, players will understand the way the game needs to be played."

Kirstein resigns at Upper St. Clair

Denis Kirstein, in his second season as head coach of the Upper St. Clair hockey team, resigned recently.

Kirstein cited other commitments as the reason for stepping down.

"I just didn't feel I had enough time," Kirstein said. "We recently had a baby, and I also took a new job in July."

Kirstein went 19-15-2 in his time with the Panthers, leading them to the PIHL Class AAA quarterfinals last season.

USC assistant coaches Mark Malone, the brother of former Pittsburgh Penguins and current Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Malone, and Tim Chiapetta are sharing the head coaching duties. Malone, who is the son of former Penguins player Greg Malone, said neither replacement coach wanted to comment about the transition at this time.

Games of the Week

(Records through Wednesday)

Quaker Valley at Westmont Hilltop, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cambria County War Memorial -- The Quakers (14-1) and Hilltoppers (9-4-2) are first and second, respectively, in Class A in fewest goals allowed.

Hampton at Erie Cathedral Prep, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Mercyhurst College Ice Rink -- The Talbots (11-7) currently trail the Ramblers (11-3-2) by two points for second place in Class AA.

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