Concussions A Blow To The NHL

Published March 14, 2011

After taking a hit by Zdeno Chara, Max Pacioretty had to be carted off the ice on a stretcher. (AP)

After taking a hit by Zdeno Chara, Max Pacioretty had to be carted off the ice on a stretcher. (AP)

When Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara nearly knocked the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty’s head off last week, he jarred not only Pacioretty’s skull but the entire hockey world.

Chara’s was just the latest brutal hit in an epidemic of concussion-causing head injuries in the NHL. The Bruins’ own two-time All-Star Marc Savard may have his career cut short thanks to his second concussion in 10 months. The best hockey player on the planet, and the league’s most famous and important player, Sidney Crosby, is still sidelined thanks to a Jan. 5 blow to the head.

Because of those notable hits, and the others NHLers are in danger of receiving, hockey executives have been forced to confront head injuries and the safety of their players.

“We have a lot of money invested in these guys so we’ve got to do what we can to protect them,” said Stan Bowman, general manager of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, who was in Boston last week for a conference sponsored by the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The NHL’s GMs hold their annual meeting this week and concussions are sure to come up.

At last year’s meetings, the executives created a rule designed to decrease blindside hits. That rule has made significant strides, but the hockey establishment needs to impose tougher penalties if the game is going to get safer, said Dan MacKinnon, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ director of player personnel.

“Right away, [referees] went after the blindside hits and targeting the head and I think they’ve done a good job with that,” MacKinnon said at the MIT conference. “The question will be, when is there going to be a 20-game suspension, a season-ending suspension, if this continues?”

The Bruins' Zdeno Chara battles along the boards. (AP)

The Bruins' Zdeno Chara battles along the boards. (AP)

To hear some in the establishment speak about it, concussions are just beginning to become a focal point for the NHL. In a sport where they’re common, the lack of precaution is shocking to many.

“Is it different than before or are we talking about it because it’s a high-profile guy?” Bowman asked. “That’s where you’ve got to look at the numbers and see, are concussions really up? Or are we just talking about them more?”

Hockey is physical, and its “tough-guy” reputation makes the sport’s head injuries tough to treat.

“Part of the problem with concussions in hockey is that coaches and athletes didn’t understand that these are serious injuries, and so players would try to play through them,” Chris Nowinsky, a co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer. “And coaches expected them to play through them.”

Montreal police opened an investigation Thursday into Chara’s hit on Pacioretty. On the same day, Pacioretty himself said that he’d prefer legal action not be taken.

Hockey’s glacial pace of safety innovation — the NHL allowed a player to play without a helmet until 1997 — fits the sport’s profile.


Radio Boston today will speak with Globe Bruins beat-writer Fluto Shinzawa, Bruins blogger Matt Kalman and NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca about concussions in the NHL.

What do you think, should the NHL change its rules to cut down concussions? Is that possible?