Kolupanowich: NHL, Players equally responsible for prevention of head injuries (with Keith Primeau)

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor
@TimKolupan_

Talk about preventing injuries, specifically concussions, always centers around the NHL or the players themselves stepping up to do the majority of the work. Rather, maybe they have to start working together and doing their own part in order to reduce unnecessary injuries. Keith Primeau, a 15-year veteran who played for the Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers has made it clear there is a lot of work to do on both sides to make sure the players remain as safe as possible.

Primeau has teamed up with several former NHL players, including his brother Wayne and Toronto Maple Leafs legend Ron Ellis, and several doctors to create the website stopconcussions.com in order to provide information on concussions and tips on how to avoid and treat them. Primeau had to retire prematurely due to concussions, just nine games into the 2005-06 season.  He still faces symptoms and has had little consistency in the six years since.

NHL players are widely believed to be the toughest in team sports. It takes a lot to keep a guy out of a game that matters and each Spring, fans hear all about the seemingly devastating injuries they play through just for the chance to have their name engraved into Lord Stanley’s Cup. And while a simple sprain or separated shoulder is easy to deal with, injuries like a concussion can have a much more damaging and lasting effect.

But is it worth it? Is it worth risking your future well-being just to win a sports trophy, even one as prestigious as the Stanley Cup? “No, it’s not,” Primeau told Coincidental Minors. “And it’s hypocritical of me because there was a point in time I felt that it was. But trust me, going through what I’ve had to deal with over the course of the last six years since my last concussion, what all individuals need to understand is that the game is only a certain part of your life. You have the rest of your life to live and you want to live it as healthy and in the best way possible.”

Primeau stresses education and awareness as the best tools for a player dealing with a concussion. They need to understand the true dangers of what they are dealing with. Earlier this season, Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Colby Armstrong hid concussion symptoms from team doctors for two days, something that, while a commendable effort, was a poor decision that could come back to haunt him later on. The players themselves need to have a greater awareness of the severity of their injury and comprehend the major difference between playing through a broken bone and a damaged brain.

That awareness includes common sense and good judgment when deciding to play through an injury. While there certainly is some pressure from the coaching staff, organizations and even the fans to get out there and play, the onus is on the player when they can and cannot come back to play. “They’re their own worst enemy,” Primeau said. “They want to be able to contribute, they want to be out there earning their paycheck, they want to be out there competing and if they don’t understand or recognize the severity of the injury and feel like they can play through it, that’s where the real damage can occur.”

The speed of the game, while making it more exciting to the fans, may have inadvertently created an environment leading to the recent up rise in head injuries. “What I felt when I played coming out of the lockout was there was less contact, but the contact that was occurring was with much greater velocity,” Primeau said.

He believes once again allowing players to battle for the puck in the corners will help reduce their speed in the dangerous areas of the ice surface. But above all, the first thing on his mind is to eliminate headshots completely. Whether that translates to eliminating fighting or not is another issue the league will have to face.

Primeau believes there has been a major change from the days when fights were more spontaneous and there were a half-dozen players on each team willing to drop the gloves. Now, each team has that one-dimensional player whose sole purpose is to go out there and fight. “These players, they train to be the fighter and it doesn’t resolve anything other than between the two combatants,” Primeau said. “Now it’s almost premeditated and I don’t know if this is the right environment.”

His current stance on fighting does not mean he was soft during his playing days in any way. Far from it, in fact. He is a veteran of 78 career fights and 1,541 minutes spent in the penalty box, so he was not stranger to the physical side of the game. “I’ve always stated how I justify fighting in that when I drop the gloves, it was an inherent risk that I accepted,” Primeau said. “But I’m beginning to waiver on that position because ultimately, if you are going to get rid of headshots, that includes fighting.”

While the debates as to whether or not fighting should be eliminated from the game are endless, there are sports where it is perfectly acceptable. Mixed martial arts league UFC’s whole focus is on fighting, but the league also make sure to protect its athletes. Any fighter knocked-out or suspected of having received a concussion is banned from fighting for at least 60 days to ensure they can recover properly. Compare that to the NHL’s new idea of having a player sit for 15 minutes and it shows how far this league still has to go to protect its players.

“I think it has to be much more extreme than current protocol. I don’t know if you can say 60 days is too long or not enough. Everybody heals at a different rate, every injury is different, but current protocol isn’t sufficient so it needs to be researched further and we certainly need a different procedure,” Primeau said when asked to compare the two leagues’ concussion practices.

Whether it is a player having the common sense to wait an appropriate amount of time to come back, or the league re-thinking some recent rule changes, there is still plenty of work to be done. It is not just the careers, but also the lives of these players that is at stake, and right now, education and awareness is the best solution to what is a growing problem. For more information, visit www.stopconcussions.com and follow them on Twitter @stopconcussions.

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