Hockey’s reigning king, Sidney Crosby, is in many ways an eggshell, always one errant elbow or clumsy fall away from months and months on the Injured Reserve.
It’s sounds harsh but it is hockey’s reality: The sport’s best player is what hockey people refer to as “a concussion guy.” Crosby, our greatest player still, has become the chief example of how concussions can stop him cold where no top-pairing defenceman or defensive centre can do likewise.
Then, on a Sunday night in Edmonton, Connor McDavid gets tangled up with Minnesota defenceman Jared Spurgeon and smacks his chin hard on the ice. McDavid got up, dusted himself off and stayed out for most of the ensuing powerplay.
Then the call came in from Toronto, and he had to leave the game. He protested and the referee only shrugged, as even he had zero say in the matter.
“I was pretty shocked, to be honest,” McDavid said after his Oilers dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to Minnesota, McDavid’s second straight pointless game. “I hit my mouth on the ice. You reach up and grab your mouth when you get hit in the mouth; it’s a pretty normal thing. Obviously the spotter thought he knew how I was feeling. He pulled me off.
“A [crappy] time of the game too. We had a bit of a partial five-on-three and then a power play late in the second game that if we had capitalized on that, it could have changed the game.”
In the aftermath of the incident, we began to check off the boxes as the NHL’s concussion protocol touched Crosby’s heir:
Did the player complain that he was fine and didn’t need to be checked on?
Did plenty of Oilers fans tweet about their team being unjustly punished, losing the virtuoso McDavid for the final 6:28 of the second period before he returned for the third?
Was the time honoured, “I saw a way worse incident last night to another team’s star player, and he wasn’t taken off the ice,” comparison invoked?
Double check, in reference to Ryan Kesler appearing to have his “bell rung” on Saturday night in Edmonton with no protocol invoked.
These are the many issues the league faces, while trying to tackle this pressing issue in an environment where everyone has skin in the game. Players lie to trainers, as Dennis Wideman did a year ago in Calgary when he would not leave the ice after cross checking linesman Don Henderson, then made the fact that he was concussed the primary pillar of his defence.
Coaches, history tells us, are more than happy to agree with their player, so adverse are they to having a short bench in times of battle.
And teammates? Well, here is Oilers winger Pat Maroon’s take:
“This is a man’s game,” the St. Louis Mo. native said. “People are going to get hit, get high-sticked. They’re going to go through the middle and get hit. That’s part of hockey, and that’s why we have all this gear that protects us.
“Yes, if someone gets seriously hurt, we’re concerned. But he just fell, got tripped… I just don’t get it.”
He repeated: “It’s a man’s game.”
Of course, many of the retired players who have joined class action lawsuits seeking retribution for varying levels of brain injury might have held the same attitude as Maroon, back when they played. Even if they hold on to those beliefs, you can count on the families of middle-aged men suffering from early onset dementia not clinging so firmly to that tough guy stance.
So, if you’re not going to applaud hockey for trying to protect players from themselves, then at least respect the NHL’s need to ward off the next generation of litigants.
“It’s all for liability reasons, right? At the end of the day, isn’t it?” asked McDavid’s linemate Milan Lucic. “That’s the reason why the NFL has cracked down on it, and that’s the reason why the NHL has cracked down on it. It’s there to protect the player.”
For the record, Lucic decried the decision to remove McDavid from the game not because of the protocol but because it was pretty clear to everyone at ice level that he wasn’t dazed by the accident. “Our best player isn’t out there because a powerplay opportunity. Because he got hit in the mouth,” Lucic said.
If we’re identifying concussions for a living, one wonders how any decent NHL fight can not result in both combatants heading off to recite back words and numbers in a timed exercise that makes up concussion protocol in today’s NHL.
It’s a fair question, one of so many these days as a “man’s game” begins to get in touch with the realities of brain injury.