NHL Concussions Cast Spotlight On Head Injuries And Hockey

While the NFL has been under a microscope for its handling of head injuries, professional hockey also has been dealing with high-profile concussions. Perhaps the league's best player, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has missed large stretches of play after concussions. And this year, the season's first eight days left three players sidelined with concussions. The Mayo Clinic's Aynsley Smith discusses head injuries and hockey, including the role that fist fighting plays in the professional ranks.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

These days, mention concussions and the first thing most people think of is the NFL. But pro football doesn't have a monopoly on brain injuries. The National Hockey League season got off to a brutal start this year. In the first eight days of the season, three players were sidelined with concussions.

Dr. Aynsley Smith is a researcher at the Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center and co-director of the Minnesota Hockey Education Program. I asked her about the kinds of injuries common on the ice.

DR. AYNSLEY SMITH: You know, we see a lot of things like facial lacerations, eye injuries, but most concerning now to us are the concussions. And, you know, a junior study we just completed, they were coming into our study in the fall with between zero and seven concussions. So they've already sustained concussions in youth hockey and in high school. And each concussion puts you at higher risk for another one.

RATH: One of the things I found very interesting is that obviously, hockey is a violent game. I'm not surprised there are head injuries, but I was surprised that the worse of head injury came from a move that you could say was imported from boxing.

SMITH: Yes. The punch, particularly the uppercut, there were two times the accelerations that could be delivered by a shoulder or an elbow. And, you know, it's a real serious stretching of the neurons. We only have so many neurons in our brain, and they don't recover easily from trauma. And these neurons can die. And yet it's the infraction that the NHL and I think the USHL are trying to step away from. And I think we've got to get them accountable and get fighting out of the game.

RATH: So how can you make it safer so the game is safe to play?

SMITH: We put in a program in Minnesota some years ago, and it's called Fair Play. And where the power of Fair Play is, is that a single point gets counted in the end of the year standings. But if you play in a respectful manner, you earn a Fair Play point, and that gets added in.

RATH: So your conduct in a particular game affects your standing at the end of the year in terms of the whole team?

SMITH: Exactly. And a parent out of control or a coach out of control or a player who loses it, they can forfeit the team's Fair Play point just like that. So it would make me put peer pressure on you to behave properly if you were the dad of a player. And it carries right across all the influences on the player's behavior.

RATH: Well, you know, there are people that would say, no, fighting's just - it's a part of it. It's integral to the game.

SMITH: I think most of those people somehow stand to gain by saying that, and I think that is what the argument's been from the NHL. It's distracting to the game. And when you're a real hockey fan, you go to a game to watch the good plays, the beautiful passing, the spinoramas. And when they bring in enforcers, their only way of getting a contract is to be that enforcer who will, you know, drop the gloves and go at it.

RATH: Dr. Smith, right now when a hockey player is injured and a concussion is suspected, what happens?

SMITH: Well, there'd be about 10 or 15 minutes taken before they actually administer the full evaluation. But the player would be examined, and then they're taken to the quiet room as a rule. And if there is a concussion diagnosed, they are not to return to play that day.

RATH: That's changed, though. So you've already - the findings have already had an impact in professional hockey with that quiet room.

SMITH: Yeah, that has changed. And body checking was delayed. And we've already shown in our Fair Play data a big decrease in the number of checking from behind penalties called. And with that one could assume much less head trauma. But I think we've got to keep the pedal to the metal on this.

RATH: That's Dr. Aynsley Smith, a medical researcher at the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center. Dr. Smith, thank you very much.

SMITH: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

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