Syd’s brain

By Rob Brown, Skeena Angler

In this part of Skeena Country spring never arrives when it is supposed to. It arrives at April’s end or at the beginning of May. When the alders leaf out and the rivers begin to rise and the woods are filled with the chatter of flickers, as they are now, it’s truly spring.

The cutthroat trout return to the sloughs in spring and there is nothing finer for me than spending a vigorous day tramping through the bush, swinging fry flies through pools and exploring under logs with tiny, scruffy bug imitations. And, there’s no better way to top off such a day than to go home late in the afternoon and watch the Stanley Cup.

I grew up in Vancouver. There was no ice for us; besides, kids were expected to organize their own sports for the most part back then. We played road hockey, sometimes with roller skates but most often without, on any flat surface we could find.

The Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League played in the PNE Forum in those days. We couldn’t afford tickets to the games, but we avidly followed the progress of the Canucks in the local papers.

We had our favourite NHL teams. My favourite was the Red Wings from Detroit. My friend Rick was a Chicago booster. Our friend Ron cheered for the Leafs, and probably still does, poor guy. When he broke into the bigs, we all rooted for a phenomenon who revolutionized hockey named Bobby Orr.

The old game was tough. It had fights. Almost nobody wore a helmet, and goalie masks, if they were worn, offered only a modicum of protection. Despite all this, today’s game is dirtier and more brutal — a lot more brutal. Part of this is attributable to the faster speed of the modern game, but a lot is a result of the officiating. The framework for what gets called, and how it is punished, is set by NHL officialdom, so ultimately the officials on the ice are as much victims of the system as the players are.

Monday May 1, Sydney Crosby, as skilled a forward as ever played the game, was cut down to his knees by Alex Ovechkin’s stick, where he was then cross-checked in the head by Matt Niskanen. Afterwards commentators, players, and coaches all expressed sadness on learning of Crosby’s concussion but said it was a “hockey play”. The inference to be drawn was that it was part of the sport. It may be part of the sport but it shouldn’t be.

What felled Crosby was a violent act by Ovechkin — who, surprisingly, wasn’t penalized — in tandem with Niskanen, who was given a major penalty and, rightfully, ejected from the game. Both Washington players intended to hurt Crosby and did so in a way that was illegal. As a result they inflicted brain damage.

The expression to have one’s “bell rung” is an apt metaphor to describe the mechanics of a concussion. Pick up the kind of bell school teachers of yore used to summon their charges from the playground. Shake it. Observe the clapper as it hits the metal sides. That’s what a brain does against the cranium in trauma that results in a concussion. Neurologists tell us that one concussion is too many. They also know that concussions can cause profound personality changes and the chance of this happening increases with multiple concussions.

To appreciate how dangerous concussions can be, we need only to consider the ineffably sad case of the Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit, who, in 2007, killed his wife and seven year-old child before committing suicide. After studying Benoit’s brain, Dr. Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery of West Virginia University, showed that Benoit’s was so damaged from multiple concussions it resembled the brain of an 85 year-old patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Benoit also had damage to all four of his brain lobes and his brain stem due to repeated concussions that led to dementia, which contributed to his severe behaviour problems.

Research has led to a furore surrounding concussions in U.S. football where studies found that former NFL players were three times more likely to die from degenerative brain diseases like Alzeimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease than the general population.

Syd the Kid has had four concussions and has missed 144 games as a result over his career. The long range prognosis for his mental health have been compromised as a result of these injuries, all of them vicious. This is just unacceptable.

The NHL has made some attempts to reduce malicious hits, but these initiatives are not nearly enough. Instead of anemic penalties there has to be zero tolerance against willful hockey violence.

One simple way is to levy penalties for such behaviour commensurate with the injury. Thus, if any player is injured, the player inflicting the injury is fined then suspended for the amount of time the injured player is out. In a case like that of Todd Bertuzzi, whose victim never played again, Bertuzzi would be suspended permanently.

This simple easily enforceable regulation change would greatly reduce serious injury in what should be a magnificent game.