NHL adds concussion spotters, controversial ‘Julian Edelman Rule’

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters before an NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters before an NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The National Hockey League is facing several lawsuits at the moment, all stemming from what the League allegedly didn’t do to protect its players from concussions and their long-term effects.

These lawsuits were inspired, in part, by the massive one that hit the National Football League. The NFL settled out of court to the tune of $900 million over 65 years. That was after years in which the League was under attack for its concussion policy, and was rather cagey and nefarious in its reaction to player safety.

The NHL, meanwhile, tried to be a bit more proactive, even if it refused to categorize head injuries as a “crisis” for the game. It implemented the Department of Player Safety, and along with it Rule 48 on contact to the head. It also attempted to institute a concussion protocol for teams, which has been inconsistent at best.

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Much of that inconsistency comes from the teams themselves, who choose not to follow that protocol because it could put them at a competitive disadvantage. Granted, losing a player for months on end or for the rest of his career might seem like it would be an even great competitive disadvantage, but you know the cliché: ‘ONE GAME AT A TIME, BOYS.’

This season, we see another collision between the NFL and the NHL on concussion policy: After football empowered concussion “spotters” to take players off the field for testing and evaluation, the NHL is going to do the same starting this season.

According to Renaud Lavoie of TVA: “The NHL will introduce spotters for every game this season. The spotters will be for purposes of determining visible signs of concussion.”

After the Super Bowl last season, the NFL implemented the “Julian Edelman Rule,” named for the New England Patriots’ wide receiver who was crushed by a hit by Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter but remained on the field for several more minutes before going to the sideline for testing.

While the NFL had concussion spotters in place, the new rule gives them the power to stop the game and force a player to miss at least one down as they take their concussion tests. They can only return when they pass those tests.

The NHL version, according to Lavoie, will have a “concussion spotter” at each game that can force a player to leave the bench for concussion testing after an on-ice collision. Basically, since the “concussion protocol” rule has been abused league-wide, the league is attempting to take the call out of teams’ hands and mandate testing for a head injury themselves.

As you might imagine, there are a few controversial elements to the rule:

1. The “spotters,” according to Lavoie, won’t have to be physicians, unlike in the NFL. Shouldn't they be medically trained to give a diagnosis? According NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly: 

"No medical expertise is needed to do the job they are being asked to do. They aren't evaluating the players or diagnosing whether or not they have a concussion. That's the job of the doctors and trainers. All they are doing is alerting team medical staff where they witness or identify an incident where there is a visible sign of concussion. Those signs aren't 'medical' -- they are objectively observable and they have already been precisely defined in the protocol," he said.

2. The “spotters” will only work in one city and will be paid by the home team, which we’re sure is something that will never come up during a controversial decision to remove an opposing player from the ice in a key situation.

From the Boston Globe, here’s how the NFL handles its spotters:

All spotters must have current certification by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, have a minimum 10 years of experience as an athletic trainer, have major college and/or professional sports experience, never have been employed as a head athletic trainer by an NFL team, and have not been employed by an NFL team in the past 20 years. The NFL will employ approximately 64 spotters and rotate them to different games.

Again, we’d like to hear more about this.

3. Perhaps unavoidably, there are going to be mistakes made. Remember Edelman? He passed his concussion tests after coming off the field in the Super Bowl. At some point, a “spotter” will see something that isn’t a concussion, and there will be outrage over it.

But will the outrage just fall on deaf ears? Whether it’s the concussion protocol or Department of Player Safety suspensions, hockey fans and those in the NHL seem to agree that the ultimate goal of lessening brain injuries balances the imperfections in the system.

NHL teams and players can’t be trusted to do what’s in their best interests when it comes to injuries, and especially concussions. The ‘Julian Edelman Rule’ may not be an ideal fix, especially as currently constituted, but it’s a start.

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