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Concussions are big headache for NHL
Sunday, January 17, 1999
FLEETCENTER -- Even though not much is being said about it, head injuries are privately becoming a serious concern in the National Hockey League.
When Bruin Peter Ferraro complained of being light-headed and dizzy this past week, the after-effects from a hard hit in a game against Calgary on Jan. 4, he was diagnosed by doctors as having post-concussion syndrome.
At first glance, Ferraro's size could be blamed for an accident that was sure to happen. Ferraro, who turns 26 next week, is 5-9, 180 pounds wringing wet. That's small in a big man's game.
But there has been a rash of head injuries in the NHL since 1996. In fact, players have suffered 161 concussions in just the past two and a half seasons.
And the size of players being hurt hasn't mattered.
Earlier this month, Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, a 6-4, 236-pounder, missed two games after suffering a concussion.
Nobody is more aware of the serious head injury problem than Lindros. His younger brother suffered a career-ending concussion while with the New York Islanders during the 1995-96 season. Finished at age 21, Brett Lindros was a healthy 6-4, 215 pounds.
After six concussions and sitting out a full season, Pat Lafontaine was forced to retire before this season began, giving up a $3 million-a-season salary with the New York Rangers.
Defenseman Jimmy Johnson, a 12-season veteran at 6-1, 195, retired from the Phoenix Coyotes because of repeated concussions. So did left-winger Nick Kypreos, a six-foot, 205-pounder, who left both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the game.
Reasons for all of these knock-outs are debatable. But the cause is obvious: Hockey is a body contact game.
The league has tried to cut down on the cheap-shot attacks. Defenseman Gary Suter sat out a four-game suspension last February after taking a vicious cross-check on Anaheim's Paul Kariya following a Kariya goal. But Kariya missed 28 games because of post-concussion effects.
When push comes to shove, the league may be at least partially responsible for its own headaches.
The fact that the NHL is making policemen-type players obsolete hasn't helped. Players no longer think twice before a Suter-type cheap shot.
''When I played, when a player did something like that, you knew what the consequences would be,'' says former Bruin Terry O'Reilly, who usually dealt with any opponent who dared take a cheap hit on one of his teammates.
''There is no doubt that taking the enforcers out of the game has led to to more breaches of aggression, and in turn, more injuries.''
But O'Reilly is quick to point out that there are other reasons for the noticeable increase in head injuries.
''There's more of a conservative treatment of injuries today,'' he says. ''Before, you'd play with with bells ringing in your ears. Today, I think everybody is much more aware of head injuries and the possible consequences.
''The league has recognized it has a problem. It is cranking up the electricity on suspensions but the side effect, concussions, still needs attention,'' says O'Reilly. ''Players get away with obvious offenses because
they know nobody's going to come after them from the other team.''
O'Reilly's solution is for equal justice.
He feels the time has come for the suspension of a player, found to have intentionally hurt an opponent with a stick or a blind behind-the-back board check, to match the games lost by the player he injures.
''That would make a player think twice, at least about being responsible with his stick,'' he says.
Another apparent reason for more concussions is size. Athletes are bigger. Players on 27 teams this season average 6-21/2, 205 pounds, an increase of two and a half inches and 15 pounds over the NHL player in the 1970-71 season.
For example, the current Bruins are one of the smaller NHL teams with seven players at six feet or under and sub-200 pounds. It may be no coincidence that five of them (Ferraro, Chris Taylor, Tim Taylor, P.J. Axelsson and Rob DiMaio) had collectively missed 64 games as of Thursday because of injuries.
Two of them, Ferraro and Axelsson, had missed seven games because of head injuries. Axelsson already has had two concussions this season.
League officials aren't waiting for a tragedy, either.
Along with stepped-up suspensions this season to players who blindside opponents with illegal body checks, the league has asked helmet manufacturers to come up with better protection for next season.
One new helmet designed by CCM is a double-layered shell separated by foam, similar to those used by bicycle riders and race car drivers.
It was only in the mid-1980s that increasing head injuries and fatalities in auto racing caused a major re-design to full-face helmets used in various motorsports.
Fortunately for the NHL, there have been no deaths since 1968 when Minnesota North Star center Bill Masterton died two days after falling backwards and hitting his head on the ice during a game. Masterton, 29 at the time, broke his skull. He was not wearing a helmet.
The key to a new hockey helmet is expected to be a larger lightweight outer shell which hopefully will offer a safer inner cushion to absorb impacts.
However, the league also needs the cooperation of its own players to make a new helmet work.
It's not an easy chore.
At 38, Wayne Gretzky still uses the same thin-shelled helmet that he has worn for years. If the league can't get its all-time leading scorer to change his ways, how can it expect other players to use a new bigger hat?
What about visors?
And while on the subject of helmets, what about making visors mandatory equipment?
Earlier this season, Lowell Lock Monster Jeff Libby lost an eye in a game he was playing without using a visor.
Now there's John Stevens, a defenseman for the Philadelphia Phantoms in the American Hockey League, who nearly lost his eye in a game against Kentucky when hit by a shot. Stevens suffered a scratched retina and several breaks around his eye socket. He wasn't wearing a visor.
If these visors are so bad, why is it that Ray Bourque has played his last 18 NHL seasons wearing one?
TV Olympic issue
The NHL has yet to agree that it will take part in the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics. The league's board of governors and the NHL Players Association will decide next month.
The big hang-up is with the International Olympic Committee and NBC-TV.
In order to take a 14 to 17-day hiatus at the height of its season, forcing the regular season schedule to be compacted, the league wants a guarantee in return: Olympic hockey to get prime-time nightly television coverage.
Nobody is willing to give that commitment yet and the league may decide to ditch the opportunity, which seems attractive since the games are being played in the U.S.
New rich owner
About everybody complains about expansion producing a diluted product in pro hockey but new owners keep showing up to pay for the teams.
Take Bob Naegele Jr., the money man behind the NHL's new Minnesota Wild which joins the league in the 2000-01 season.
It cost $80 million just to buy the Minnesota franchise; no players, no staff, no building.
But Naegele believes in hockey. He saved Rollerblade Inc., ready to go broke, when he bought the company in 1985. Ten years later, he sold it to an Italian ski boot company for $150 million. Then he bought into Mission Hockey, a roller hockey skate company which opened a new line of hockey
skates. Now several NHL players are using the skate, including Mighty Duck scoring phenom Teemu Selanne.
Naegele, who runs his hockey operations from his Florida residence, has already sold 11,000 season tickets for the new team.
Tough hat trick
Talk about a hat trick, Detroit's Slava Kozlov had to be talking to himself after three first period goals in a recent game against St. Louis. Two were disallowed by the referee, one for using his hand to knock the puck in and another when he re-directed a shot with his foot. The third goal, by teammate Steve Yzerman, also was called back when video-replay caught Kozlov for goaltender interference.
Crazy but true
The St. Louis Blues' payroll is among the highest in the NHL at $30 million. Yet $5 million of that is going to Brett Hull (who went to Dallas as a free agent) in a deferred payment, and Joe Murphy, who now plays in San Jose.
The Blues, by the way, have been heavily scouting the Bruins since just before Christmas. Just a hunch but something tells yours truly that 29-year-old center Pierre Turgeon, a proven goal scorer, is the one that the Blues are dangling.
Coming along well
Bruin second-year center Joe Thornton is beginning to come along. He had a nice string of five goals and seven points in seven of eleven games through Friday while playing on a checking line.
His best progress has came in front of the net where he is learning how to use his size (6-4, 225) to maneuver down low, in and about the goal-mouth area.
''We all want Joe to be a 50-goal scorer, and it's not going to happen,'' cautions Bruin coach Pat Burns. ''He's just learning. I keep saying that and nobody wants to hear it.
''He's got to learn all aspects of the game and he's learning every day. I've seen some young players ruined in this league because too much was expected of them too fast,'' warns Burns, claiming that is why he has been patient with the 19-year-old No. 1 draft pick of 1998.''I'm not going to hang him out to dry.''
Starter, Nike and Bauer will no longer manufacture NHL team jerseys after this season. The NHL's jersey business will belong to CCM and Pro Player Inc. next season. The jersey souvenirs are worth approximately $70 million a season. Part of the deal? The manufacturers are to spend $150,000 in
marketing each team whose jerseys they are licensed to make. Pro Player, for example, will spend $150,000 next season in advertising the Bruins for the privilege of selling jerseys with Bruin logos on them.
How'd you like to be a University of Maine hockey player next fall? Coach Shawn Walsh has invited Marine drill instructors to be a part of the Black Bears' mental toughness and discipline regimen at Maine's hockey training camp. Can't you hear it now? Attention! Forwards, march!
Four-assist goal: It was 64 years ago this month that an official scorer made NHL history, awarding four assists on a goal by Toronto's Joe Primeau. It's never been done since that 5-5 game between the Maple Leafs and New York Americans.
Last but not least Revenue Canada (the equivalent of the IRS) has announced that it will crack down on Canada's quaint recreational sport of curling by scrutinizing returns of the broomers next spring. They aren't claiming income, so say the Deep Freeze tax folks.
Which leads us to ask just one question: Since they're chasing the little guys, how about R. Alan Eagleson?
Where has Revenue Canada been since the ex-hockey czar pled guilty last year to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canada Cup rinkboard money between 1984 and 1991?
© 1999 Lawrence Eagle-Tribune
Russ Conway is an Eagle-Tribune columnist. If you have questions, comments
or material to add on this subject, please feel free to contact him by phone
at 685-1000, by mail at Box 100, Lawrence, MA 01842 or by e-mail at