Sidney Crosby and the NHL's playoff concussion disaster

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby should have been pulled from Game 6 after crashing into the end boards, and put in the NHL’s concussion protocol for further evaluation.

Except he couldn’t be pulled from Game 6, based on the NHL’s current concussion protocol standards.

“Depending on the mechanism of injury, ‘slow to get up’ does not trigger mandatory removal,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told USA TODAY Sports. “The protocol has to be interpreted literally to mandate a removal. ‘Ice’ as compared to ‘boards’ is in there for a reason. It’s the result of a study on our actual experiences over a number of years. ‘Ice’ has been found to be a predictor of concussions — ‘boards’ has not been.”

Holy [expletive].

That he wasn’t pulled is an indictment of the League’s concussion spotters system and its criteria; an indictment of the Penguins’ approach to the their players’ health; and the continuation of a disturbing trend in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs in which potential brain injuries are shoved aside for competitive advantages.

Let’s start with the spotters.

The Spotters

Beginning this season, the NHL expanded its concussion spotters mechanism to include not only observers inside the arena, but also ones monitoring games off televisions in New York.

The entire system was dismissed as a PR ploy by some, but the hope was that this was another failsafe in place as players and teams seemingly made their own rules about when a potentially concussed player should leave the ice.

(See Wideman, Dennis.)

The spotters have specific criteria they use to judge whether a player should enter the concussion protocol. In general, the criteria are applied “after a direct blow to the head (including secondary contact with the glass, boards and ice) or an indirect blow to the head (such as a blow to the body that causes acceleration/deceleration of the head).”

Here’s where we observe a failure in this system in the case of Sidney Crosby in Game 6.

This part of the criteria deals directly with an incident like Crosby’s, in which a player is “slow to get up” after potentially injuring his head.

Take a look at that again: The criteria for the concussion evaluation goes from a broad, sweeping “direct blow to the head” and is boiled down to three specific instances, none of which technically applied to Crosby. Technically, his head hit the boards; and the “secondary contact with the ice” as presented here is very much about it happening after a hit or a punch.

It’s completely semantic and borderline ridiculous, but as Daly noted, there’s a mechanism in the criteria where removal of Crosby on a play like that isn’t mandatory.

Now, let’s recall when Connor McDavid was pulled from a game earlier this season by the spotters:

 

 

Said McDavid, at the time:

“It kind of sucks because that’s the rule. You go down, you hit your head, you reach up and that’s the rule. They take you off the ice. I hit my head. Well, I hit my mouth, reached up and grabbed my mouth and they took that as something that it wasn’t. I guess that’s the rule. The guy stuck to the script and did his job.”

And again, the Crosby play:

Are we honestly satisfied with a concussion protocol whose justifiable application depends on whether a player covers his face with his glove momentarily after falling headfirst into the end boards? Or if a player hits his head on the ice rather than the boards?

Because that’s the deal. Just like goalie interference, if the [expletive] rulebook doesn’t completely spell it out, then they can’t call it.

Let’s stay on this criteria for a moment. You know what isn’t mentioned in this document? Context.

This isn’t “Player X.” This is Sidney Crosby, a player with a demonstrable history of concussions, including one diagnosed approximately one week prior to slamming his head against the boards on Monday night. Should there be a provision in the criteria that deals with “at risk” players?

Further context, and perhaps the most frustrating part about the spotters’ role last night:

They were just over two minutes away from the damn intermission.

This isn’t taking Crosby off the ice in the first two minutes of a period. This is, literally, him missing one shift before getting a full evaluation for a concussion in the back. These tests take upwards of 18 minutes. If he passes, he’s back for the second period.

Why risk his health, given that?

Then again, we can’t exactly assume anything with the Penguins after the postgame mess last night.

The Penguins

Coach Mike Sullivan had the following exchange in the post-Game 6 press conference:

Q. Mike, were you concerned when you saw Sid was sorta slow to get up in the first, and was he evaluated for a concussion during the first intermission?

 SULLIVAN: “No … no.”

Crosby was asked about the play after the game.

“Yeah when you go in like that, it just kind of knocked the wind out of me. Kind of a fluky fall but not one that you want to take too often,” he said, via Brian Metzer.

Crosby was asked if he was evaluated between periods.

“Yeah, yeah… standard,” he said, without specifying if it was for a concussion.

Again, this is the franchise’s biggest star, one week removed from a concussion that made him miss a playoff game. He crashes headfirst into the boards. He claims he just had the wind knocked out of him. The team is off the ice for intermission.

What, exactly, is the harm in putting Crosby in the protocol, unless you’re worried you risk losing him for the game if the doctors discover something?

If Sullivan is correct, and Crosby wasn’t tested, this is a horrible look for the Penguins.

But then, the entire Crosby situation in this round has been a horrible look for the Penguins, and for the NHL.

The NHL

Sidney Crosby isn’t the player we saw in the first three games of this series. Not even close. So are we going to assume that in his one-game absence the Capitals suddenly figured out how to neutralize the best player in hockey, or is it that Crosby rushed himself back and no one is going to tell him “no?”

Here’s the reality for the League on this Crosby matter: I’ve had more conversations with people involved in the NHL in the last week about Crosby that devolved into exasperated rants about how frustrating it is to see him playing now.

I had one person chew my ear off for 20 minutes about how disgusted they were that Sid was allowed to play. I had another begging the media to write a takeout piece on the Penguins’ complicit role in it. I had another text me after Game 6 to say, “Crosby’s head-first crash without immediate evaluation makes me sick, and also pissed off.”

It all comes from two places: The genuine hope that Sidney Crosby, one the greatest players in NHL history, isn’t going to end up with irreparable damage to his brain, now or in the long term; and a general frustration with the approach to concussions from the NHL in the postseason.

First, there was the bizarre ordeal with the Toronto Maple Leafs and defenseman Nikolai Zaitsev in the opening round, in which the Leafs deemed him “playoff ready” but not healthy enough to play in the IIHF world championships.

This seemed to indicate that the Leafs allowed Zaitsev to play with a concussion, although others dismissed it as “gossip.”

In the case of Crosby, it seems unlikely that he could recover that quickly from a concussion, and his play is an indication that he maybe hasn’t.

But in the interest of equal time, the venerable Bob McKenzie offered this via Twitter:

“Crosby, like any player on the ice, could get concussed on his next shift but I believe, in this instance, Crosby wouldn’t be playing if he weren’t cleared beyond on all doubts. He’s getting next level diagnosis, care, treatment that is as cutting edge as it gets. Knowing Sid, knowing those who look out for him, knowing the care he gets, I don’t believe he’d in in lineup if he weren’t truly ready. Don’t doubt for a minute protocols are often ignored, twisted, manipulated but I’d wager that most certainly isn’t the case on this one. But like you, we’re just neophytes and novices expressing opinions shaped by our own personal experiences and quasi-research.”

But again, here’s where the concussion protocol needs improvement.

Sullivan said that Crosby passed a baseline test – which have their own drawbacks – and was cleared by doctors. The Penguins’ doctors. And while we’re not trying to call anyone’s integrity into question (although I guess we are), shouldn’t these evaluations be done by independent neurologists, giving them the final say?

Because here’s the current standard:

The Club Physician remains solely responsible for making return to play decisions based on these parameters, including in circumstances where the Player is referred to a consultant for management and treatment. Prior to making the return to play decision, the Club Physician shall ensure that all aspects of the Protocol have been satisfied, including referral for neuropsychological assessment.

Is it too much to ask for someone to look out for the player’s best interests that isn’t paid by a team trying to win the Stanley Cup? Hell, if the NFL mandates an “unaffiliated physician” must clear the player, shouldn’t the NHL? Oh, that’s right: We’re not football, right Gary?

Although, if you ask the player, one assumes winning is the only interest.

Sidney Crosby

Here’s the part I struggle with when it comes to concussions, spotters, the protocol and all of it:

If Sidney Crosby wants to put himself at risk, who are we to stop him?

He made the decision, at a very young age, to play an injurious sport that’s left former players with brain damage or in a wheelchair. It’s a sport with catastrophic accidents and devastating collisions. Yet it’s his choice to play it, his risk to succeed in it, his life after it’s all over.

Now, that’s the long-term view. That’s the view that makes me side-eye concussion lawsuits, because these players understood the bargain they’re making with their own health.

The short-term view is that the players are never going to pull themselves off the ice, so the NHL and its teams have to do it for them. Just like they mandate safety equipment that the players don’t want to wear. Just like they support rules that make the game safer, if a little more difficult to play at this velocity.

Ultimately, it takes a village to rehab or prevent a concussion. The NHL has to do its part. The teams have to do their part. The player has to be forthright and humble, and buck decades of tradition in which they outright lied about their fitness to protect a roster spot.

And we, the fans, have to support efforts to protect the players from themselves even if it means our teams might be at a competitive disadvantage.

Which means if Crosby missed several shifts in Game 6 because he was being evaluated for brain damage, the proper response is “that’s OK, it’s better to be safe than sorry considering what we know about concussions,” and not “THE NHL WANTS THE CAPITALS TO WIN BECAUSE REASONS!”

It’s a problem we all have to acknowledge and address, because the last week has made many of us queasy. We want Sidney Crosby as the face of this League, playing some of the greatest hockey we’ve witnessed in decades. We don’t want to see a shell of that player because he rushed back from injury. And we certainly don’t want to see that player put at further risk due to an insufficient set of standards for “concussion spotters” established by the NHL.

It doesn’t matter that, ultimately, he wasn’t injured. At least on that play. What matters is the integrity of the League’s public commitment to the safety of its players, and how that commitment seems perfunctory and slipshod when things like this happen.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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