Monday, November 21, 2011

Goalies Are Different

Everybody knows goalies are a different breed. From Glenn Hall puking before every game to Gary "Suitcase" Smith showering between periods and Patrick Roy talking to his goalposts, they're often on a planet of their own. Unfortunately, while their minds may seem to be elsewhere, their brains are actually still on the same plane, taking the same risks as every other player. However, a lot of the evidence proves when it comes to concussions, there's a different standard for goalies.

On March 16, 2011, the NHL's new concussion protocol came into effect. It says, in part, that "players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician. The physician will use the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, motor incoordination or balance problems, a blank or vacant look, slow to get up after a hit to the head, disorientation, clutching of the head after a hit or visible facial injury in combination with another symptom." The league received immediate positive feedback for the change, and many brain-safety advocates saw it as a step in the right direction.

On March 18, 2011, the Canadiens took on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. With the Rangers up 5-3 late in the third, Benoit Pouliot crashed hard into Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, bowling him over. The trainer hurried to the netminder's aid as Lundqvist was very slow to get up, holding his head. Instead of the "quiet room" treament, however, Lundqvist got an on-ice neck massage from the trainer and stayed in to finish the game. He complained of a stiff neck after the game, but managed to play, and win, two days later.

On October 22, 2011, the leafs visited the Habs at the Bell Centre. Just over a minute and a half into the first period, Brian Gionta attempted to duck through the crease. In the process, he bumped goalie James Reimer, hard, in the head. Play went on during a delayed penalty call in the Canadiens end, while Reimer remained helmetless, on his knees, in his crease. Again, the goalie, although obviously rattled, was not removed to the quiet room. In this case, didn't even get the benefit of a neck massage, as the trainer wasn't summoned at all. The Hockey Night in Canada announcers called the hit "a pretty good jolt," and Glenn Healey commented that it was "a pretty good show by Reimer." The goaltender got up and played the rest of the first period. He left the game during the intermission, claiming something, "didn't feel right."

Toronto coach Ron Wilson said of the Reimer hit the following day: "He got an elbow in the head and felt whiplash like effects and he could've finished the game but it's early the season and we didn't want to risk it. He should be OK and we will see how he feels tomorrow." A month later, Reimer still hasn't played again because of "concussion-like symptoms," which Brian Burke denies add up to an actual concussion and Reimer's mother says is the latest of several career concussions her son has sustained.

On November 12, 2011, the Bruins met the Sabres in Boston. With the Sabres up 1-0 about six minutes into the opening period, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller came out of his net to beat Milan Lucic to the puck and clear it out of danger. Lucic, with a full head of steam and no intention of letting up, drove an elbow into Miller's head. The goaltender lost his helmet and was later diagnosed with a concussion. Again, no trainer rushed to the scene and Miller ended up playing the rest of the first and the second period before finally leaving the game with "neck pain." The announcers during the game called it a deliberate attempt to injure, but NHL policeman Brendan Shanahan said the hit didn't deserve a suspension. Given some of the suspensions he's handed down for very similar hits on skaters, it seems the NHL discipline office thinks goalies should be judged differently. Miller himself had another opinion.

So now two teams just in the Northeast division are missing their top goalies with concussions, and in neither case did anyone take the hurt player off the ice for assessment according to the league's concussion protocol. Last March, the Rangers were just lucky the same thing didn't happen to Henrik Lundqvist. While it's true that goalies are better equipped than their teammates to handle pucks to the face and head, and may seem impervious to the kinds of injuries other players endure, one must remember the brain inside the helmet doesn't know if it belongs to a goalie or a centreman. It knows only the repercussions of a blow to the head, which are the same for a goalie as for anyone else.

On this day, when Sydney Crosby is set to come back from the concussion that has kept him from the game for the last ten months, head injuries and their consequences are on the public radar more than they ever have been. Hockey Canada has made important changes to women's and minor hockey on the road to preventing head shots. Researchers are improving equipment and even the dinosaur-paced NHL is moving toward harsher penalties for those who cause head injuries. Except when it comes to goalies.

Few people would argue Crosby is the Pittsburgh Penguins' most important player. It's his status and elite skill level that have shone a light on his injury and helped force the changes we've seen in the last year. For many teams without a skater of Crosby's ability, however, the goaltender can be their biggest, or only, star. Losing that player can be devastating. Just imagine, for example, the Canadiens with Carey Price sitting out a concussion for weeks or months.

Sadly, after the Lucic hit on Ryan Miller, one of the most common debates among commentators and fans was whether the Sabres were too "soft" and let Lucic "get away" with the hit. The problem with that train of thought is the reaction doesn't matter if the goalie has already been hurt. And, Miller's teammates should not have been expeted to protect him when the league protects everybody else.

Adam Proteau writes for the Hockey News, and he's the author of the new book, "Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey." On the issue of how goalies are treated under the concussion protocol, Proteau says:

"It's about evening the playing field across the board and saying it doesn't matter how many minutes you play or what position you play. You deserve to be safe in your work environment, or as safe as possible."

Those are words the league needs to take to heart during the evolution of developing respect for the brain in hockey. A goaltender should have the same degree of protection as any other player, and hitting him in the head should carry the same consequences. Goalies may be different, but their brains are not.


Steve said...

Price will fight Lucic

Pisano said...

The NHL has said one thing while doing another on various topics. One being the second rule book for the playoffs or phrased another way, the no-rule book during playoffs.

Another is the head-shot issue. Shanahan came out with guns ablazing, soon to be reined in by his bosses. Everyone wants strict rules and substantial punishment, just not to their players.

Unless and until the NHL gets serious with head-shots, the carnage will continue.

Goalies should be protected as much as any other player, every player being given equal protection. Although there has been some progress, major progress is still a courageous step away. Unfortunately, a courageous step that no one has been willing to take...

Anonymous said...

Hey J.T.,
really miss your period summaries. Just saying.