The dictionary describes an epidemic as “affecting many persons at the same time” or “extremely prevalent; widespread”. Under that definition, concussions in hockey are definitely an epidemic. At least 30 NHL players are out currently with a concussion or head injury. But it’s not a new trend.
Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine brought awareness to head injuries. Lindros was most known for suffering four concussions in the 1999-2000 season, with the most known the final blow by Scott Stevens in the Eastern Conference Finals. After his second concussion of the season, he criticized doctors for failing to diagnose the concussion. LaFontaine suffered a head injury in 1997, and Buffalo’s doctors refused to clear him to play and recommended him to retire. He wanted to return to the ice, so he was traded to the Rangers for the next season. He suffered a concussion in the 1997-98 season, missed the remainder of the year and retired in the offseason. Both players’ quick return to the ice was the “old boys” mentality, where missing games was viewed as weak. Under standards today, both players wouldn’t have rejoined the lineup until they were completely healthy.
Recently, players such as Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby have brought more attention to the issue. Savard’s injury (and the lack of a suspension by offender Matt Cooke) prompted a debate about headshots that eventually lead to Rule 48 being introduced. Rule 48 punishes players for checks where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact. Crosby, as the lead draw for the NHL, has brought more awareness to recognizing and treatment of concussions.
But it’s not just hockey that is affected. Take for instance, the National Football League. Players like Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Merril Hoge were known to have multiple concussions through their playing days. All three were forced to retire due to concussions. All three probably could have prolonged their career had they not returned to the field so quickly after their injury.
Thanks to more knowledge of head trauma, players and doctors now can recognize symptoms of a concussion more easily than they were able to in the past. Some of that knowledge was increased by former WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski, who suffered a concussion in the ring. Nowinski wrote a book detailing his injury and the dangers of concussions in contact sports. He has since created the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to increasing the research of brain injuries.
As teams consider their players more as investments and less as disposable commodities, they are more reluctant to allow them to play if they are not 100% healthy. Instead of sending a player back out onto the ice when he feels “fine”, the NHL (and professional sports in general) have taken it out of the players’ hands and force them to sit out until they pass the mandated tests.
Concussions aren’t more prevalent than they have been in the past; they are just being documented and treated more, which is a good thing.