Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Has Savard Returned too Soon?

We certainly all remember the hit - Matt Cooke's devastating shot to the unsuspecting Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins in a game on March 7th. The hit left the Bruins’ All-Star motionless on the ice, carried off on a stretcher with a Grade 2 concussion. Fans clamoured for retribution, several NHL stars demanded rule changes and spoke out against Cooke’s hit - including some of his Pittsburgh teammates. The league worried another Moore/Bertuzzi incident was on the horizon; warning both teams of serious repercussions if any players stepped over the line seeking revenge. At the time, Boston was clinging to the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference; not only had they lost their best player, their season was in jeopardy.

The issue of headshots became front-page news yet again and the debate raged on in all media circles, especially when the NHL did not or could not suspend Cooke for his actions. With the incident occurring days before the NHL’s General Managers were to meet to discuss this very issue, many believed, including this writer, the league was about to finally take action on a serious issue they had neglected for far too long. Once again, the NHL fell short in dealing with headshots properly. They took the dramatic step of immediately creating a new rule - in time for next season, declaring an "open season" on headshots for the rest of this season. They eventually implemented the rule for the rest of this year but was it out of concern for their players or because of the backlash and embarrassment of being ripped in the media?

Luckily, for Boston, their season did not end and they have since advanced to the second round of the playoffs after a first round victory over the Buffalo Sabres. The play of goaltender Tuukka Rask and the ageless wonder, Mark Recchi, propelled the Bruins into contention for the Stanley Cup and a possible match-up with Cooke and the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals if both teams advance to the next round. By continuing their season, the Bruins had an unexpected addition to their line-up as they took to the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers - Marc Savard.

While it is tremendous to see Savard recover from his injuries and cleared to return to the line-up in time for the second round of the playoffs, the question that must be asked, is it too soon; regardless of having medical clearance? This is a difficult issue, especially in the multi-billion dollar sports world but there is certainly a need for the conversation to occur. Do players need to be better protected for their long-term health care and not just the immediate future?

There is an increased awareness on the long-term effects of concussions, thanks in large part to Chris Nowinski and groups like the Sports Legacy Institute. Some of the major sports leagues are now working with the SLI to develop new policies and guidelines to deal with injury, referred to as a concussion but to put it bluntly, is a severe brain injury. A concussion temporarily changes the brain’s ability to function properly; a frightening prospect for anyone.

As medical science advances, more is becoming known about the super-computer we call the brain, but there is still much to be learned about the organ that makes us who we are. An injury to the brain can leave a person, athlete or not, forever changed. Depending on the location of the injury, personalities can change forever; depression and suicides have been linked to the injury. The ability to function, grasp simple concepts and learn new ones, can be lost; leaving families destroyed and forever changed.

For more specific information on the long-term effects, visit the SLI’s website:

Or check the TVOS archives for the Chris Nowinski and Keith Primeau interviews...

One thing we have learnt is that one concussion greatly increases the risk of a second and third concussion. The force required to cause serious damage lessens with each subsequent blow to the head. Ask Savard’s teammate Patrice Bergeron; he missed significant time after a body check that sent him headfirst into the boards, which resulted in a concussion. When he returned the next season, he suffered another after delivering a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on an opponent. There was no contact with his head and yet the force of the bodies colliding caused a concussion. In fact, once a person suffers a concussion, they are as much as four times more likely to suffer another, even when the impact is less then the first. With each subsequent injury, the risk of a third, fourth, fifth and so on, escalates at an alarming rate. The number of concussions suffered by some players is into the double digits, which is a terrifying thought. Who will be there for these athletes after they retire and begin showing signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in their forties or fifties and become unable to function?

While we can hope that Savard is not in any immediate danger, there are risks involved with his return to the ice six weeks after sustaining such a devastating hit. It is not only up to the major sports leagues to change their policies on returning to the game, it is up to us as sports fans to change our views as well. His return is the “feel good” story media members love to write about, we can only hope he is not risking his life in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Photo by Dan4th on Flickr.

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