Hockey community making progress with concussions

Concussions and head shots have taken over hockey at all levels. It’s something that the hockey masses think the NHL needs to deal with before someone dies.

It has already ended careers (ask Eric Lindros) and is now the reason why hockey fanatics watched the Penguins in the playoffs without the game’s greatest player, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been extra diligent when dealing with his concussions. According to many reports, Crosby suffered his first concussion after a collision with Washington Capitals’ David Steckel in the Winter Classic and then a secondary concussion when he was hit by the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman.

Rushing a player back is a problem in itself.

BrainFit Lab is a proactive group that specializes in researching concussions. They’re a part of the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto.

They state that if a concussion is not properly healed, the second one isn’t too far away:

“In the minutes to days following a concussion, brain cells are vulnerable. New research shows that the problem may not be the structure of the brain tissue itself, but how the brain is working. The exact length of this change is unclear. During this time period, the brain does not function normally, and is more vulnerable to a second head injury.”

John Chehade is the director of sales and marketing for the Canadian Medical Research Group (CMRG). He told The Good Point that the long lay off for Crosby may not be ideal for Penguins fans, but is in the best interest for Crosby and his long-term health.

“I think they’re doing a great job. They’re sending a great message to the general public. This is a guy who is making millions of dollars but at the end of the day they’re saying, ‘we care about him as a human being and as athlete’,” Chehade said.

“Right now he’s being tested using the ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) program,” added Chehade. “It was developed at the UPSC Sports Medicine program. The physicians, Drs. Mickey Collins and Mark Lovell are the creators of the program and the physicians overseeing Crosby’s concussions right now.”

ImPACT is being used by the CMRG and is already implemented by all NHL teams, throughout MLB, 21 NFL team and eight NBA teams.

The CMRG has begun pitching the idea to minor hockey associations in Ontario. The Guelph Minor Hockey Association (GMHA) in Ontario is one of the first organizations that have enforced mandatory neuro-cognitive testing.

Every child that signs up to play – house-league or rep – will have to take an online concussion test prior to the season. The 25-minute assessment will give GMHA a baseline test for each player. Therefore, when a player suffers a concussion during the season, he/she will not be allowed back in the line-up until the test is where it was prior to the season.

The Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League are one of the many major junior hockey teams that have adopted the ImPACT system as well.

In a 2009 OHL contest, Rangers defenceman Ben Fanelli was slammed into the end board by Erie Otter Michael Liambas. The blindside head check resulted in Liambis being suspended the rest of his overage year. Fanelli’s head was crunched into the steel partition forcing his helmet to come of and allowing his skull to bounce off the ice. He laid there motionless, except for the twitching.

Fanelli was rushed to hospital and later transferred to intensive care at Hamilton General Hospital with skull and facial fractures. He has started playing hockey again, but still not with full contact. In the meantime, he has turned his attention to a triathlon, which is where his new fundraising campaign Headstrong sprouted from.

“It all started as an idea, not specifically Headstrong, more just a way to raise money for the Brain Injury Association of Canada,” Fanelli said. “I approached the team with the idea and it was Michelle Fortin (Director of Public Relations) who came up with Headstrong. I was already planning to do the triathlon and decided to combine them both.”

Fanelli seems to have hit a nerve; Headstrong has taken on a life of its own.

Players in the OHL have supported it, knowing that it could have been them going back for a puck in a play you see in each and every hockey game. Teams have rallied around the young man that seems to be defying the odds and businesses have recognized the importance of brain injuries in sports.

“I get texts from Michelle all the time about people wanting to donate,” Fanelli said.

“We had the Dominion of Canada make a big donation at one of the games this year, which was big for me and Headstong. The team has been outstanding, the support from them, the coaching staff. I just hope it keeps expanding, because it’s not the only place where you have to deal with head injuries.”

Also taking notice is the Ontario Hockey Federation. They have banned all body contact for participants aged 6-21 playing house league or select hockey.

However, is this looking out for players’ safety or taking away the learning curve? If they don’t learn how to properly give and receive a body check, are they not more susceptible to injury if they want to advance in hockey?

If a player is released from a rep team or a higher level like a “AAA” club, and is forced to play house league hockey, they will be behind their peers in terms of development if they plan on attempting rep hockey in the future.

Monitoring the youth in question is what two registered occupational therapists at the BrainFit Lab are doing. Nick Reed and Steph Green run tests on three boys and three girls between the ages nine and 12.

They use a technology called Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) that “incorporates helmets fitted with accelerometers, which allow real-time data to be collected while in play”. The research program is trying to “revolutionize the study of the development of the brain and its effects based on age and gender.”

“My clinical and research interest in studying the cognitive function and performance in youth athletes following concussion and their safe return to meaningful activities are part of my way of giving back to the game,” said Reed in an article by the University of Toronto.

Returning safely to the game is something Fanelli hasn’t been able to do; yet. He still has aspirations of getting back to full contact this summer, but until then a wholesome recovery is progressing. Fanelli said that everything from his training to school is improving.

He is struggling with one thing, unfortunately. That’s whether he is doing the triathlon to win, or just to finish it.

“That’s exactly what Gabriel Landeskog asked me and I didn’t have an answer,” Fanelli said.

“I do everything to come in first and people who are close to me know I’m pretty competitive. I’m doing it to win – that’s what I always do – but on the other hand, to be able to train for it and live a normal life is first place for me.

Fanelli continued, stating that the entire triathlon experience has been very rewarding.

“It’s a compliment in itself. It’s an individual battle. That’s all I really need. That’s a win right there.”

A young man’s hockey career, and almost his life, was taken away just as fast as his head hit the boards. The good news is that some people are finally using their heads, to save others.