Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Blow To The Head

The normal content of all of my blogs has been pre-empted by what I consider to be an essential message. If you're looking for something else, be patient and share this with your favorite athlete, and his or her parents. 
My son no longer plays youth hockey, and I no longer coach youth hockey. And while I am heartbroken by this turn of events, I am totally at peace with that decision.
Obviously, one event precipitated the other. On Nov. 17, my son Andy suffered his third concussion in 10 months, in a B-level bantam game. The next day a neurologist – whose son was a star hockey player – recommended he give up the sport.
We didn’t argue or fight back. Instead, we accepted the recommendation with a measure of relief; at the same time, I resigned my position as an assistant coach with my son’s team.
My son was not going to be a star hockey player; he shook out as a borderline high-school varsity player. But his skills as a hockey player did not have any impact on this decision. He’s a very good B-level bantam hockey player, arguably one of the best in the state. With him on the ice, his team stood a very good chance of winning a state title. He didn’t leave a lesser team or a less meaningful situation, not that that matters or should matter. I can’t imagine any decision to leave a team could have been any more heart-wrenching even at the highest levels of the game, yet we made this decision unanimously, without compunction or remorse.
Andy is walking away primarily because the doctors and his parents recommended it. I am walking away because I can no longer with a clear conscience recommend that young people play upper-level hockey.
This isn’t a cause-and-effect thing; it’s not simply a case of me losing my desire to coach because my son had three concussions and had to quit hockey. Instead, this is a conclusion that I have reached after coaching more than 100 hockey games over the last four years. I can no longer convince myself that there is sufficient concern for players’ well-being coming from any sector of the sport – equipment manufacturers, sanctioning bodies and organizations, officials, coaches, parents, and other players.
In the last six games I coached I saw three players on our team leave the ice with concussions or concussion-like symptoms. In less than a full season I saw six players sustain concussions and one break his collarbone.
I asked Andy how many penalty minutes were doled out as the total punishment for those injuries, all of which were inflicted through illegal or borderline-illegal contact. He said six.
Six minutes: That’s a total. That’s a total for six significant brain injuries and a broken bone resulting from illegal and borderline-illegal contact.  Cause injuries like that on the street and you’re spending a year in prison. Do that in high-school hockey and your team can’t play for a state championship.  Do it in the NHL or NFL and you’re suspended one game minimum and fined five figures. Do that in bantam-B hockey and you spend six minutes in the box.
Does this seem right to you in any way? If not, the easy way out is to blame the officials and leave it at that. They should have called the penalties. Call the penalties and none of this happens.
Okay, but consider the officials’ situation. Most of our team’s games were officiated by children as the law defines them, 16- or 17-year-old boys looking to make a little money. For some of them, the first game they officiated was our game.
It never struck me until very recently, but I am absolutely terrified by the mere idea of having a barely trained 16-year-old boy, in many cases a head-knocking product of a head-knocking hockey culture, being put into a contentious environment and charged with enforcing the rules protecting 14-year-old kids in a sport where violent high-speed collisions occur every minute. These young officials have only the most basic knowledge of the rules, are not sufficiently removed from a hockey culture that may encourage illegal contact, are easily influenced by coaches and spectators, and in no way feel empowered to make the difficult calls that need to be made to create an adequate atmosphere of safety on the ice. They’re in a no-win situation, and the game and its players suffer for it.
Not only do officials need to be better trained and sufficiently empowered, the rules backing them need to be stiffer. A lot stiffer. It’s okay to be draconian here, to punish player, coach, and team for hits resulting in head injuries. If USA Hockey, the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association, and all other hockey-sanctioning bodies wanted to remove from the game 90 percent of the hits resulting in head injuries, they could. Disqualify teams from tournaments. Suspend coaches. Suspend players. Forfeit games. Bar organizations. It’s not as if they don’t know the dangers or what’s at stake. After all, there wouldn’t be state or national titles if these bodies didn’t create them out of whole cloth.
Football has taken huge steps toward criminalizing head contact. Hockey’s efforts look half-hearted by comparison.
As long as we’re on the subject of sanctioning bodies and half-hearted efforts, the attempts to educate coaches on the necessity of removing the culture of violence from the game and discourage head contact come off as less than half-hearted – one-quarter-hearted, maybe. USA Hockey’s age-specific modules spend at least as much time talking about why eight-year-olds should not drink alcohol as they do avoiding the subject of head contact. (USA Hockey’s glass-half-full approach is to teach appropriate body contact, and avoid the subject of the head as much as possible.) Educational requirements are bare-bones for most coaches, with nothing that stresses the absolute necessity of compliance. Coaches can and do sleep through their clinic, stumble through their CE, and go right back to teaching the art of the high elbow to the jaw and the stick butt under the shoulder pads.
Somehow, someway, the head-knockers and red-bloods that are coaching kids need to be weeded out, or dialed back at the very least. I had the privilege of working under some superb coaches who truly understood the game. Jim Lawrence is a Ph. D. in chemistry who coached the club-hockey team at Purdue. Ron Dufresne played Minnesota hockey and Ivy League football. I’ve seen these highly educated men teach the game the right way practice after practice and game after game. They’ve sat kids who were improperly aggressive, dialed back the bench when they cheered a big hit, treated referees with respect, acknowledged good plays by opponents, supported kids who needed supporting, held back kids who were hurt, and shook hands at the final buzzer.
Did we sometimes cheer the wrong things at the wrong times? Sure. But we never belittled a child, swore at a child, swore at an official, sanctioned players who swore at other players or officials, applauded illegal behavior, encouraged head-hunting, or raised hockey players the way NFL players raise pitbulls. We played against plenty of coaches who did, unfortunately.
“So there are bad coaches,” the red-bloods say. “Big news flash. Most coaches are good.”
I’d go along with that. More than half of all coaches are good. All that means is that once a week my son was facing a coach who wasn’t good, who wasn’t teaching kids the right way, who was condoning reckless, unsportsmanlike, dangerous play.
All right, so one-third of coaches are bad. That means my son was being put in a dangerous situation a little less than once a week. One-quarter bad? In danger every other week.
The odds really don’t ever get good. It’s not acceptable for a child’s long-term health to be put into the hands of irresponsible adults once a month, once every other month, once a year, or ever. It’s just not acceptable.
 “Geez, why doncha just do away with checking altogether?” the red-bloods ask mockingly. “And then it’ll be just like girls’ hockey.”
I’m okay with that, actually. None of the life lessons hockey teaches involve head injuries.
One of the reasons I’d be okay with youth hockey minus checking has to do with equipment. Equipment manufacturers say that their equipment is better than ever. It is; it’s better at turning kids into high-speed battering rams.
This isn’t just a hockey thing. Football is struggling with the same problem. Advancements in protective equipment for both sports do a much better job of protecting the deliverer of the blow than the receiver. There is no “concussion-proof” helmet. There is no fail-safe knee brace.
The inventors of such things would enjoy untold riches through organizational endorsements and grateful-parent purchases, so I don’t necessarily think hockey parents should underwrite the development of truly safe equipment through higher fees. But if that’s the way it’s going to get done, surcharge away.
I used to think better equipment was the ultimate way of making hockey safer. Now I think it’s probably the least necessary component in the equation. The ultimate answer isn’t scientific; it’s cultural.
Here is where we really need answers. Rules and punishments come to a dead stop when they run into the head-knocking red-bloods – parents, coaches, players, and organizational officials -- that make up an unfortunately large part of hockey culture.
I may not have the answers, but I have a few suggestions.
Coaches need to take this stuff seriously and realize it’s not the game they played for the most part. It’s a faster, better game played by more highly skilled players. That’s the game they have to teach, and if they can’t teach it, they have to step aside in favor of someone who can.
Parents need to realize the same thing, plus the following: You are not your child. Their aspirations and accomplishments are not your aspirations and accomplishments. And they are very likely not going to make the NHL regardless of how much ice time they get, how many goals they score, what the referees do or don’t do, or how many minutes they spend in the box. Also, it is not all right for your child to hit another child in the head, or from behind, or in any illegal manner, no matter how spectacularly the other kid falls. One of these times he’s not going to get up.
Referees need to make the calls knowing enough to make the calls, and knowing there will be no repercussions from any quarter for making the calls.
Equipment manufacturers need to step it up. Protecting young hockey players is at least as important as protecting young football players.
Finally, the sanctioning bodies have to muzzle the red-bloods who don’t understand why squirts can’t body-check, show a little red blood of their own, and vow to eliminate head contact from the game, and do whatever – whatever—it takes to make that occur – up to and including removing checking from youth hockey.
If checking could be removed from the game for a time, all the people who play hockey simply for the violence might leave, and then if body contact were to be gradually reintroduced commensurate with improvements in equipment, the game might eventually become what it can be – a fast, free-flowing, beautiful sport that above all rewards speed and skill. But that’s not a guarantee. It’s a pipedream.
For my part, I’ll never be able to replace the thrill I got seeing my son charge like a stallion onto the ice to start his shift, the joy I felt seeing the joy he derived from the game. That’s gone forever, and whatever he does in any other sport will never replace that.
At the very end I come back to the story of another parent from Andy’s team, a tough little guy, brusque and abrasive but honest as the day is long, someone I like and respect.  In high school this guy was one of those types who was immediately good at any sport he picked up. Hockey was his favorite sport; he played it well and played hard. He couldn’t tell me how many concussions he sustained, but he assured me it was a big number.
He has a dead spot on his brain now from too many concussions, and Parkinson’s. His last five years have been a continual series of ER visits, tests at Mayo and near-death experiences, all traceable to concussions, all traceable to hockey.
He asked Andy, “How many concussions is this?”
“Three,” Andy answered.
“Take my word for it,” he replied. “The fourth one’s not worth it.”
It’s not worth it. And I can’t convince myself that a third is worth it, or a second, or even a first, and I can’t honestly tell parents or kids that it’s worth it.
So my son and I are walking away from hockey, for different reasons. I know my son’s future is bright, and I’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about the sport. 

Postscript: After I wrote this I shared it, as a whole or in condensed form, with many people whom I consider to be experts in sports medicine, hockey, or writing. Some disagreed with emphasis or wording, but no one disagreed substantially with anything presented in this piece. A hockey coach in Regina, Sask., who was one of Andy’s first coaches said “yep,” and sent me a link to a piece on young officials giving up officiating because of fan abuse. A veteran high-school and semipro hockey official said “yep.” A high-ranking official in minor-league hockey said “yep.” The local high-school hockey coach said “yep.” The former team doctor of the Boston Red Sox said “yep.” The parents of Andy’s former teammates said “yep.” A number of red-blooded hockey fans said “yep.” There’s obviously a problem. The question is whether enough people care sufficiently about a solution.

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