Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Searching For Answers


Every month, I write an article for "Main Street", the voice of the English speaking community in the Laurentians. The newspaper is available on-line at www.mainstreetweeknews.com, beginning the second Wednesday of every month. Unfortunately, this month's issue is not available on the net and I have received a few emails wondering if it could be posted here. So, with permission from the Main Street Editor, here is the January Voice of Sport - Main Street edition...

As 2009 begins, instead of looking back at the year that was, I would like to discuss a topic that will certainly be in the headlines for years to come, concussions in sport. This can be a devastating injury, and it will be some time before we realize the true toll. Symptoms can linger for months or years, from headaches and vertigo, to severe depression, memory loss, and suicide. Even if the professional and amateur sports leagues make immediate changes, there is an increasing amount of evidence illustrating that more damage occurs to the brain than previously thought, and repeated concussions can have life-altering effects. An injury, once written off as “just having his bell rung” or “punch drunk”, can be as serious as a life threatening injury. Our ability to think, reason, and feel compassion, stems from the brain (pardon the pun). Injuries to our personal “super computer” can alter personality, devastate lives, and lead to great tragedy.

Work is currently under way at Boston University with the help of the Sports Legacy Institute into the long-term effects of concussions. Dr. Robert Cantu, Professor of Neurosurgery at Boston University, and Chris Nowinski, a university football player and former wrestler in the WWE, founded the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007. After numerous concussions, Nowinski retired with many debilitating injuries. A Harvard graduate, he has turned his attention to helping other athletes and their families learn and recover from their injuries.

Recent research has revealed a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy; an abnormal protein called “Tau” which builds up on the brain after repeated concussive injuries. Unfortunately, at this time, a post-mortem tissue analysis is required to confirm the diagnosis. The brain tissue of six former NFL players aged 36-50 was examined and five demonstrated significant damage and an abundance of the Tau protein. Several high profile athletes have agreed to donate their brain to the research efforts after their passing. The problem is certainly not limited to football and wrestling, several hockey players have had their careers shortened by concussions. Hall of Fame member Pat Lafontaine and Eric Lindros fought through numerous concussions during their careers and Eric’s younger brother Brett played less than two years in the NHL with the New York Islanders. After receiving numerous concussions during his time in the Ontario Hockey League, Brett Lindros had to make the difficult decision to leave the game he loves or risk permanent injury. Patrice Bergeron, a forward with the Boston Bruins now faces the same dilemma. Several weeks ago, he received another concussion after a routine hit, and his career is once again in jeopardy. Recent research suggests a minimum of one month without contact after a concussion; the current NHL policy is one week.

A change in equipment standards needs to be at the top of the list in the NHL. Players rarely have their chinstrap tightened correctly, and many concussions have occurred as the player falls to the ice and his helmet slides off, leaving his head vulnerable. The shoulder and elbow pads in the NHL have come a long way from the days of leather equipment; a player’s body has better protection now than in the past. However, the very equipment protecting them leaves their opponents vulnerable to devastating blows to the head. Last season, NHL players received seventy-four concussions - nineteen caused by shoulder or upper-arm hits to the head. A change of attitude is also required in the professional leagues. The NFL and NHL continue to view each concussion as an isolated incident and not a major problem plaguing their leagues, and unfortunately, more of our young athletes will have their careers end prematurely. Have a great sports day everyone, and a happy, healthy 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Notice to Red Wings - He's back...

San Jose is the site of a hockey comeback not seen since Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur laced up his skates with the Rangers and Quebec Nordiques from 1988 - 1991, three years after retiring from the Montreal Canadians. Sharks General Manager, Doug Wilson, confirmed today on Hockey Central @ Noon that 43 year old Claude Lemieux has earned his way on to the Sharks and will be on the ice in the coming days.

Lemieux, who retired in 2003 after stops in five NHL cities, is one of only eight players in league history to win the Stanley Cup on three different teams - Montreal, New Jersey and Colorado. His 80 career playoff goals ranks him in the top 10 all-time for playoff goal scorers, and that is certainly one of the reasons why San Jose made the decision to sign the veteran forward. GM Wilson told the Hockey Central crew that Lemieux "earned his way" onto the squad, and this is an "opportunity based on merit". Wilson expects the veteran forward to fill a 3rd or 4th line role with the Sharks, and could be in the line-up as "soon as tomorrow" - the final decision will belong to Head Coach Todd McLellan. In 23 games with the Worcester Sharks (San Jose's AHL affiliate), Lemieux has 3 goals and 8 assists and was a plus 2.

During an interview in September with RDS, the French sports network in Quebec, Lemieux expressed interest in an NHL comeback. Wilson, who was a teammate of Lemieux's, suggested a trip to the Asia Ice Hockey League and the San Jose sponsored China Sharks, and that's where he started the season. Perhaps he found a fountain of youth in Asia, signing a minor league contract with Worcester in November, and then a two-way deal with the Sharks at the end of December - leading to the January 19th call-up to the NHL. With 498 career goals, he could soon be joining the exclusive 500 goal club; just as Jeremy Roenick did last season with the Sharks.

Claude Lemieux is probably most famous for his battles with the Red Wings during his time with the Colorado Avalanche. Everyone can recall his violent check on Kris Draper that sent the Detroit forward head first into the boards in the 1996 playoffs. Draper suffered a concussion, broken jaw, nose, and cheekbone, while Lemieux received a 2 game suspension. The Draper hit eventually lead to the famous brawl on March 26th 1997, that saw Darren McCarty exact revenge on Lemieux. After escaping from the grasp of a linesman, McCarty went after Lemieux with a right hook and started an on ice brawl that included a Patrick Roy/Mike Vernon fight. Several incidents have followed over the years, and the Red Wings/Avalanche rivalry has grown.

After several seasons of early playoff exits in San Jose, and knowing that a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals will most likely pass through Detroit, the Sharks have made a statement about their intentions to still be playing hockey in June. What can Claude Lemieux bring to the Sharks at 43? A suitcase full of Stanley Cup rings... Have a great sports day everyone.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Capital Gains

As two of the greatest NHL players ever, and certainly the two best players in the eighties and early nineties, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemiuex were constantly compared to each other, and will forever be linked. In recent years, a new dynamic duo has emerged in the NHL; a pair of players that may someday join Gretzky and Lemiuex in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and rewrite the record books. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin are the new faces of the National Hockey League, and although drafted in different years, the "lost" lock-out season brought both players into the league at the same time. Their numbers are similar - Crosby has 116 goals and 353 points in 258 career games, Ovechkin has 192 goals and 367 points in 288 career games. Crosby has a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals under his belt, but as the Penguins slide in the Eastern Conference standings amidst rumours of a coaching change, perhaps it is Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals turn for a long playoff run.

Although it certainly doesn't hurt to have one of the greatest young players in the world, the recent success in Washington goes beyond Ovechkin. An era of hard work, dedication and strong team play has come to the Verizon Center, and it starts with the team owners, and Ted Leonsis. As head of the Capitals ownership group since 1999, Leonsis is a bright light among NHL owners. A fan favourite, he writes regularly on the Capitals web site, he will often take time to talk hockey with fans, and he is a dedicated philanthropist - donating to many charities in the D.C. area through the Leonsis Foundation. He has also seen the franchise through some dark days of declining ticket sales and the transition from past stars, Olaf Kolzig and Peter Bondra, to the new stars in town - Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and defenseman Mike Green.

In his time as General Manager, George McPhee has accumulated many number one draft picks, but his greatest move may have been acquiring Sergei Federov from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline as a mentor for his young Russian players. Federov was a key piece to the team that went from 14th in the Eastern Conference to the playoffs last season. In a move that may have saved his own job, McPhee promoted Bruce Boudreau from their AHL affiliate Hershey Bears to coach the Capitals. Many of the young players in Washington were familiar with Boudreau's systems already, and the Coach's faith in his players paid off. The city of Washington fell in love with the Caps again, and Boudreau was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as Coach of the Year. A former player himself, McPhee played seven years in the NHL with the Rangers and Devils, and went on to earn a Law Degree from Rutgers University in 1992.

McPhee has used his number one picks wisely, using a pick acquired from Vancouver to draft Alexander Semin 13th overall in 2002. Mike Green was drafted 29th overall in 2004 and last season he became the youngest defenseman to lead the league in scoring among defensemen since Paul Coffey. He is now considered a sure thing for the 2010 Olympic team. Then there is Nicklas Backstrom, last year's runner-up for Rookie of the Year - no second year jinx for him. The young Swede, taken 4th overall in 2006, has 12 goals and 36 assists in 45 games this season. Of course, leading the way is Alexander Ovechkin. A slow start is behind him now and it's full speed ahead for Ovechkin and the Caps. They have earned their way to 2nd in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, and are well ahead of Carolina in the Southeast Division with a 12 point lead.

The Capitals are an unbelievable 18-3-1 at home in the Verizon Center, but have struggled on the road - posting a 10-11-2 record. More wins will come on the road as Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson round into form. Theodore is 15-8-1 with a 2.94 GAA and a .893 save percentage, Johnson's record is 11-6-2 with a 2.75 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Both goalies need to see their save percentages improve as the season progresses, but with the fire-power up front, the Capitals should come out ahead on the score sheet most nights. With stronger goaltending, Washington will certainly be a contender for the Stanley Cup, and Ovechkin will get his turn to play hockey in June. Have a great sports day everyone.