Concussions in hockey must be better prevented

Kevin Shay

Last December at the Ames/ISU Ice Arena, in the midst of a 4-2 Cyclone loss to defending American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) champion Lindenwood College, sophomore Cyclone defensemen Joe Wanat left the game with concussion-like symptoms.

After Wanat left the ice, it was decided that he should leave the arena to pursue better medical care, and Wanat was destined for Mary Greeley Medical Center to undergo further testing.

Part of the reason for the cautious decision to send Wanat to the hospital was due to his concussion history. ISU senior Cort Bulloch said after the game it was Wanat’s 10th or 11th concussion of his career, and possibly a career ender.

This was tough news for the Schaumburg, Ill. native, who was in his first season with the Cyclones and has played hockey all his life.

“As a coach there is questions of whether or not you should continue to let the player play because you think of their future and the big picture,” said assistant coach Brian Wierson. “It’s no good losing a player, but you want to look out for the long-term well-being of the person. So we hope that Joe will make a full recovery.”

The good news was that once Wanat entered the hospital they did not rule it a concussion. There were still questions surrounding his recovery of what doctors were calling “definite impact,” and how much it would affect his future hockey career.

The bad news was that concussions in hockey appear to be a growing trend. Also, increased awareness of concussions and attention to concussion-prevention details — such as equipment — is coming much too late for players like Wanat and the late NHL tough-guy Bob Probert.

Probert, who passed away in July after playing 16 seasons in the NHL as a member of the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, recently had his brain examined. It showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative disease caused by repeated concussions. Probert is the first contemporary hockey player to show C.T.E. after his death, although several of his brain trauma issues might have to do with the fact that Probert was once one of the most feared NHL brawlers of his era.

It remains to be seen how much of Probert’s brain trauma was hockey-related, or how much was indeed fighting-related.

The NHL has showed increased sensibilities to concussion awareness, as shown by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ cautious approach to star center Sidney Crosby’s concussion-like symptoms in January.

Showing caution would make sense for every sports fan — especially after watching boxing great Muhammad Ali attempt to hold the Olympic torch in the 1996 Summer Olympics at Atlanta. No athlete wants to be handicapped later in life due to the ferociousness of their sport.

Meanwhile, the NHL reports an average of 75 concussions per year, according to a March 5 New York Times article — a number that is believed to be vastly underreported.

While the NHL continues to assess how to better prevent concussion in its game, junior hockey shows a much more stirring, and scary account of the serious medical issue.

In a recent study, the Hockey Concussion Education Project, followed 67 male Canadian junior hockey players aged 16-21 through 52 physician-observed games during the 2009-10 season. The results of the study were alarming:

• 17 players suffered 21 concussions during the 52 games.

• 29 percent of the HCEP players suffered a second or recurrent concussion during the study period.

• 88 percent of the HCEP players with diagnosed concussions admitted to having suffered a past concussion.

• 24 percent of the concussions occurred in players who were directly involved in a fight prior to concussion analysis.

• The mean clinical return to play of 15 players was 12.8 days.

If the same percentage of concussions was reported on the NHL-level there would be 1,230 concussions every year.

In order to better prevent concussions in the future, a team of doctors led by Aynsley M. Smith, RN, PhD, held an October conference — the Mayo Clinic’s Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion.

Murdoch was one of the many coaches to attend the conference, although based on recent studies, it appears more coaches should have in order to better understand the severity of these injuries.

“Out of 560 schools, I’d say about 250 coaches representing their schools attended,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch is a strong advocate for the use of half-shields by collegiate and junior players. As noted at the recent summit, new and improved equipment can perhaps best deter concussions in the future.

The most notable aid to help prevent concussions is improved helmets.

Dr. Michael J. Stuart, who spoke on most of the equipment issues at the Mayo Clinic summit, noted in his report that helmets “prevent or reduce focal head trauma such a skull fracture or concussion.”

More research is being focused on what will aid a safer helmet.

One area of focus Stuart outlines in his report is the helmet’s ability to spread out the focal point of a blow to a player’s head to a wider area within the helmet itself. Because the helmet can’t take all the impact, the development of a helmet capable of swiveling and deflecting the blow of a hit so it impacts a greater area would be useful.

Stuart says this would lead to less impact focused on one area of the brain, therefore lessening the likelihood of a concussion.

Christian Johansson, a former Cyclone hockey player and senior in kinesiology with a focus on athletic training, agrees with Stuart’s assessment.

“Go back to basic physics,” Johansson said. “The larger the area you spread out a force of impact, the less force goes to a specific spot. Therefore, that would equal less concussions. I think a lot of helmets are trying to do that these days.”

One new helmet that claims it is proven to absorb and distribute more energy from high-impact forces is the M11, created by Cascade Sports as a portion of the Messier Project.

The Messier Project was spearheaded by ex-NHL great Mark Messier in order to better protect players in the game he loves. The helmet supposedly helps deflect the blow from a specific spot of a player’s head.

However, self-funded hockey programs like Iowa State’s have trouble equipping all their players with the new, technologically advanced helmets. The helmets cost, on average, approximately $150. With 27 members on the team this year, it would cost approximately $4,050 to equip the entire team.

But the Cyclones are giving the helmet a trial run.

“We’ve got one player on the team wearing the helmet,” Murdoch said. “They swear it gives higher protection, and obviously not 100 percent prevention — but better prevention.”

That player is Joe Wanat.

Wanat returned to action later in the season after avoiding a concussion in a December game against Lindenwood. He went the rest of the season without suffering from a reported concussion, and perhaps the helmet had something to do with that.

Murdoch said the helmet may do more than just aid concussions.

“It spreads out the impact that causes concussions, and sometimes that impact can lead to whiplash — so it can help that too,” Murdoch said.