Hockey Safety Issue: School Of Hard Knocks

Women’s Collegiate Programs Deal With Issue Of Concussions
By: 
Jess Myers

 

Over the course of a decade as the women’s hockey coach for his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson has coaxed a quartet of national championships out of his Badgers from his perch behind the bench. He’s also seen changes that have made college women’s hockey a different game than when he started coaching in Madison in 2002.

“The players have gotten faster and stronger, and the rink is the same size,” Johnson said.
And like all coaches in the college game, that increased strength and speed means that even in a non-checking game, he’s dealing with more players missing time on the rink due to concussions.

According to a study using NCAA data, women players report  a great number  of concussions than their male counterparts.

Before the first puck was dropped on the 2014-15 women’s college hockey season, the off-ice news was rough. In September, University of Minnesota officials announced that star forward Amanda Kessel would miss the entire season due to lingering concussion problems.

With three sons and a son-in-law who are current or former NHL players, Dr. Michael Stuart from the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., knows a thing or two about life at the rink, and the injuries that inevitably come along with that life. When parents whose hockey players are dealing with a concussion ask when their child can return to the rink, Stuart answers them with a very open-ended timeline.

“Somewhere between a week and never,” is his standard answer. It sounds like a joke, but he’s quite serious. And it’s those unknowns that can be so frustrating to coaches who have to deal with their players’ absences.

“If a player breaks an arm, you know they’ll be back and ready to go in six weeks. With concussions, you just don’t know,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “It’s such a tough injury because you just don’t know the recovery time. And it’s the brain, so it affects so many other areas.”

As the chief medical officer for USA Hockey over the past decade, Stuart acknowledges that girls’ and women’s hockey are non-checking sports, but they’re a far cry from non-contact sports.

“There is no legal body checking at any level of girls’ and women’s hockey anywhere in the world, but it’s a very high-contact, high-collision sport,” Stuart said. “Watch a USA-Canada game sometime. There is a lot of contact. There are a lot of collisions.”

Some theorize that in a full-contact sport like men’s hockey, players anticipate collisions and are prepared to take a hit at all times, while female players have more unanticipated contact, leading to more concussions.

“You realize the bigger picture. This can affect someone long-term, and a game isn’t worth the risk of a long-term problem.”

  —Katie King Crowley

Stuart notes that if you anticipate a collision coming, the body’s natural defense is to tense your neck muscles and clench your teeth, so your body is more prepared for the contact.

For others, the rise in the number of concussions in the women’s game is a product of more awareness and better diagnosis after contact to the head. Or perhaps women are more forthcoming when it comes to reporting an injury.

“We’re definitely more aware of concussions now,” said Boston College coach Katie King Crowley, who won Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals as a player for Team USA. “Even if a kid says they’re fine after a collision, you still watch them. You realize the bigger picture. This can affect someone long-term, and a game isn’t worth the risk of a long-term problem.”

In recent years, weight lifting has become a routine part of training for female hockey players, which has been good and bad for the game in terms of head injuries. Yes, players are stronger and perhaps more able to physically absorb a collision better than they were a generation ago. But that increased strength and speed also fosters more forceful collisions, which can lead to concussions.

That was the case for Meghan Duggan, who missed more than a year of on-ice time after a concussion suffered during a Team USA training camp. Already having dealt with a few concussions when she played for the Badgers under Johnson, Duggan took a hard, unintentional hit to the back of the head, then hit the boards, during a practice.

“I knew right then and there I was in trouble,” said Duggan, now an assistant coach at Clarkson University. “It was a really long road back after that.”

She went through 14 months of doctors’ appointments and trainer visits, countless hours in a quiet, dark room, a challenging mix of emotions and seemingly endless days of “feeling like you’re in a fog” before she was able to return to the ice.

Her story has a happy ending, as she was able to skate for Team USA during the Sochi Olympics last winter. And Duggan, with a note of pride, says the experience didn’t change her on-ice approach to the game.

“I had to dig deep inside myself and work hard to get healthy,” she said. “My style is so aggressive that if I was thinking about a concussion when I’m playing, I wouldn’t be me.”

While some advocate for stiffer penalties and a crackdown on high hits, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada both draw high marks from experts for making strides in reducing and even eliminating hits to the head.

Others feel that such infractions are too rare to make a positive change in the safety of the sport.

“I can only remember a few instances where a rule change would’ve made a difference,” Frost said. “You just don’t see a lot of kids intentionally targeting the head.”

Once a concussion is diagnosed, there’s a detailed protocol for treatment that Stuart and others have helped establish and publicize for hockey coaches and players which is listed on the USA Hockey website.

Gender differences show up there too, as men are often more light sensitive while the brain heals from a concussion. By contrast, women often complain of being more sensitive to noise.

When they’re relegated to the other side of the Plexiglas, for either gender, there’s a cruel irony in the fact that perhaps the worst thing a player recovering from a concussion can do is attend a hockey game.

The brain needs time to rest, and hockey’s combination of lights, noise, anticipation and “thinking the game” provide little down time for the cranium.

While medical professionals stress that there’s no set timeline for returning to the ice, Stuart admits that more than 90 percent of athletes who suffer a concussion are symptom free within a week. But for the coaches, there’s a bigger picture to consider, and a definite hesitancy to rush a player’s recovery.

“Obviously, kids want to play, but it’s bigger than us,” Crowley said. “Let’s face it – nobody is making a living after college playing women’s hockey. They’re here to get an education and get a job, and they need their brains to go to school.”

 

 


 

Signs & Symptoms
Of Concussions

Players

Symptoms:
• Headache or “pressure” in the head
• Nausea or vomiting
• Balance problems or dizziness
• Double or blurry vision
• Bothered by light and/or noise
• Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy
• Difficulty paying attention
• Memory problems
• Confusion
• Does not “feel right”

If you think you have a concussion, follow these steps:
1) Tell your coaches and your parents
2) Get a medical check up
3) Give yourself time to heal

Coaches

How to recognize a concussion:
• Athlete appears dazed or stunned
• Is confused about assignment or position
• Forgets sports plays
• Is unsure of game, score or opponent
• Answers questions slowly
• Loses consciousness (even briefly)
• Shows behavior or personality changes
• Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
• Can’t recall events after hit or fall

If you suspect a player has experienced a concussion, follow these steps:
1) Remove the athlete from play
2) Ensure that the athlete is evaluated right away by an appropriate health care professional
3) Inform the athlete’s parents or guardians about the possible concussion
4) Allow the athlete to return to play only with permission from a health care professional with experience evaluating for concussions

Parents

Letting your son/daughter heal completely before returning to play will decrease the likelihood of permanent damage if another concussion should take place. Also, be sure that you inform coaches in ALL sports your child participates in of any recent concussions.

Any athlete with a suspected concussion should be IMMEDIATELY REMOVED FROM PLAY, and should not be returned to activity until they are assessed medically. Athletes with a suspected concussion should not be left alone and should not drive a motor vehicle.

If ANY of the following are reported, then the player should be safely and immediately removed from the field of play. If no qualified medical professional is available, consider transporting by ambulance for urgent medical assessment.

1) Athlete complains of neck pain
2) Increasing confusion or irritability
3) Repeated vomiting
4) Seizure or convulsion
5) Weakness or tingling/burning in arms or legs
6) Deteriorating conscious state
7) Severe or increasing headache
8) Unusual behavior change
9) Double vision

 

Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.

 

Issue: 
2014-11

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