Friday, February 5, 2016

The Good News about Wideman Case? A Closer Look at Concussions

First of all... wow. Just a big freaking wow to how dangerous the NHL is with regard to head trauma and how much work the league has to do to get on track. After stating firm belief on Dennis Wideman's guilt in his unprompted takedown of linesman Don Henderson (still feel 20 games is right, per the rulebook), a new firestorm of concussion talk has opened up. Maybe Wideman's cognitive abilities were impaired after the hit by Predators forward Miikka Salomaki, which certainly has changed some people's (myself included) take on whether or not he was guilty.

Not only does it turn out that Wideman was concussed before he had his run-in with Henderson, he was allowed to continue to play and finished the game despite the fact that the NHL spotter in the arena alerted the Flames bench about the fact that the defenseman was exhibiting concussion-like symptoms. Wideman, a team player engaged in the heat of the battle, waved off Calgary staff and was allowed to stay in the game--a major no-no by the label of the NHL's concussion protocol.

UPDATE: Wideman clears concussion protocol, apologizes for actions

So, who is at fault for letting Wideman play, and what will it mean for Wideman's appeal?

Those are both good questions, and both will be answered in the not too distant future, but a more important question is: Will the NHL learn from the Wideman incident and begin to do a better job of ensuring that its independent spotters have final say when it comes to a player exhibiting concussion-like symptoms in a hockey game? With the pending lawsuit against the NHL currently joined by over 100 ex-NHLers, the league will be looking to prove its vigilance here--something it has not managed to successfully do as of yet.

The NHL would be wise to take the Wideman incident as a good opportunity to get its collective house in order. Being strict on abuse of officials is one thing, but being *relatively* lenient against those who commit violence against the heads of their peers on an all-too-regular basis presents bad optics for a league trying to show how much it cares about its athletes. If Wideman gets 20 games for roughing up an official, why can't the league stiffen its punishments against those players that unleash dangerous hits to the heads of their opponents? There have been 16 suspensions and 7 fines against players for committing dangerous violence against other players this season in the NHL. It could have been a lot more.

Those who scour the highlights night after night are made aware of many dangerous hits that are completely overlooked. Many because they don't result in injuries (but many injuries don't go reported, as we know), and many because they are seemingly inadvertent. But isn't it time that the NHL starts treating the action more than the intent, sort of in the way we've always seen high-sticking called? In other words, if a player throws a shoulder into another player's head with no malice, and it causes the same type of concussion that it would have even had it been done with malice, then why not punish the result of the play rather than the intent? It shouldn't matter if Raffi Torres or Johnny Gaudreau or Jamie Benn--or anyone--meant to make an illegal check to the head. All that should matter is the "mind your stick, mind your body" ethos.

We've strayed off topic a bit here, because the real issue with the Wideman concussion comes after the play--whether it was suspendable, illegal or not. The troubling fact in this case is that Wideman told his team he was okay to play, they took his word for it, and afterwards he was diagnosed with a concussion. What's important here is that the NHL finds a way to field and employ an objective, vigilant and compassionate independent group and enjoys the autonomy to use their expertise in the field and pull players off the ice when they see danger. Whether it's in OT of game 7 of the Conference Finals or the third game of the regular season.

Surely, one can see that their are conflicts of interest between the independent concussion spotters and the clubs' spotters right now. What should come from the unfortunate details of the Wideman incident is an upheaval. Make the independent spotters a part of the game, and let them have the reins, with no grey areas and no team politics to be questioned. At the same time, the NHL must also ensure league-wide security and integrity--a certain issue--so that player A doesn't get sent to the quiet room while player B is allowed to stay on and help his team when they've both exhibited the same symptoms.

All this rambling on the subject has made one thing clear: It's not a simple equation to get all this right. Hockey is an inherently violent sport ruled by violent collisions and played at break-neck speed. Concussions would be part of the equation even in a non-checking NHL. It's up to the league to continue evolving its policies now so that the player safety may be placed at a higher value than the league's perception of the how important its violent culture is to the bottom line.