Max Pacioretty, one of hockey’s true concussion survivors, sat on the Montreal Canadiens’ bench looking out through the fog. His head had just been bounced off the Bell Centre glass by a Jarome Iginla check and after lying prone on the ice for a while, a member of the training staff had led him woozily to the Canadiens bench.
We do not know that Pacioretty was concussed, but that is not the issue.
Here is the real issue: The Canadiens didn’t know either.
Head coach Michel Therrien did not know. Head athletic therapist Graham Rynbend did not know. Head team physician Dr. Vincent J. Lacroix did not know of the severity of Pacioretty’s condition, nor was he granted an opportunity to assess the player before Pacioretty hopped the boards for another shift.
Days earlier, Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch reported these quotes from Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski, who had been tossed head-first into the boards during the first period of Game 6 in a collision with Pittsburgh’s Tanner Glass, then returned to play in Period 2:
“My head didn’t feel great in Game 6,” Wisniewski admitted after the series. “I said my back hurt so I didn’t have to do the 20-minute [concussion] protocol and go through that whole concussion process. I didn’t feel like going in and talking to the doctors for 20 minutes.
“A lot of guys were playing through things. Guys with fractured feet, separated shoulders… [Nick] Foligno came back in two and a half weeks from a [knee] sprain, which is usually four to six weeks. That’s playoff hockey. It’s survival of the fittest.”
Back in Montreal, a member of the training staff leaned in close to Pacioretty’s right ear so he could be heard in the Bell Centre. He was, we can assume, inquiring about Pacioretty’s faculties and wondering if the player would join him in the dressing room for a proper assessment of what 1 million TV viewers could see was, at best, possible head trauma of some sort.
Pacioretty simply shook his head no.And that was that.
Someone at the National Hockey League ought to stash that bit of video away. Just in case when Pacioretty is 55 years old and — we pray this isn’t the case — suffering from post-concussion syndrome, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. When his name arrives on one of those ever-growing number of class action suits being filed against the league, that clip will come in handy for the NHL’s defence.
Why players choose to play through a concussion, now that we know so much more about the long-term effects, is something we may never know. That they do it, however, is indisputable.
Did anyone not suspect Steven Stamkos was concussed in Round 1 when Alexei Emelin’s knee struck him at game speed in the back of the helmet? Stamkos returned to the game after the intermission.
“If it smells like a concussion, then it’s a concussion,” noted concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator told my colleague Sean Fitz-Gerald at the National Post. “But they don’t want to make that diagnosis. There is that resistance, because they know that it can take time for the brain to recover.”
When The Quiet Room was enacted at the GM meetings in 2011, it was a rushed-in concept as a result of growing concern over concussions. A year earlier, just days after Matt Cooke had (we know now) ended the career of Boston’s Marc Savard with a vicious headshot, the general manager’s meetings had produced Rule 48. A year later, with Sidney Crosby in the throes of his concussion woes, The Quiet Room was born.
But from its outset it was flawed.
“What’s going to happen,” Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero asked that day, “when our doctor says that Alex Ovechkin can’t go back in [to a game]? Or Mike Richards? Or their doctor on Sidney Crosby?”
Would teams literally have to pay a neurologist to travel for 82 games and playoffs? What might that cost, considering what a neurological practice bills in a year?
What about the NHL Players’ Association? What about NHL coaches? Would either group allow an objective head doctor to order a player off of the bench and into this Quiet Room when the player felt — as did Pacioretty — that he was not in need of attention?
Who has authority on this Quiet Room project? Well, as it turns out, it’s the player. And isn’t that rich?
We lionize hockey players for playing through injury. Us hockey folks thump our chests over how the athletes we cover, cheer for, or employ, are tougher than everyone else’s athletes.
How in hockey, when it’s only a few teeth or a face gets sliced open, that’s good news. It just means they’ll be back on the ice sooner.
Then we take something as important as concussion protocol and leave it in the hands of those same players who are so loathe to admit when they’re hurt. Like they’re going to take themselves out of the game.
The coaches, the players, the fans, us sports writers — we won’t have to pay in the end.
But when Max Pacioretty or James Wisniewski joins the class action suit, the NHL will.
You’d think they might want to get control of this.