Is NCAA role model for concussion prevention? Print
Futures Watch
Written by Steve Wozniak   
Saturday, 11 February 2012 12:57

The NCAA requires players to wear full cage masks and regardless of player sentiment, it does not have a major concussion problem. That places it way ahead of the NHL, which has yet to get tough enough on the issue.

Steve WozniakAsk any college hockey player about the full cage masks that the NCAA requires them to wear on their helmets, and chances are you’ll get a response that oscillates between sighful resignation and seething disdain.

“You get some players that think because you’re wearing that extra protection, they can take a few more shots at you,” said Notre Dame sophomore forward Anders Lee earlier this season. “It doesn’t offer as much protection as people might think.”

Most NCAA players come to campus fresh from major juniors – the USHL or NAHL – where clear half-shields are the standard dress code. Numerous players have privately stated their preference for those, not only because the clear half-shields offer better vision on the ice, but also because it allows the players to better police themselves.

Take a cheap shot on an opposing team’s star player? Don’t be surprised if the next shift, you catch a subtle elbow or stick blade under the jaw as a blunt but friendly reminder of the hockey code.

But with the full cages, players can feel like goalies who won’t strip down for a fight. Go ahead and bang away as recklessly as you want. It’s not like you’ll get hurt. At least not significantly.

Talk to the players, and the NCAA-mandated full cages are a gross failure. Talk to doctors and trainers, and they might claim them to be a raging success. Because for all the discussion ad nauseum about head shots and concussions in the NHL, the NCAA has not faced as big a problem.

Heading into this weekend’s action, College Hockey News had 39 Division I players listed as injured. The reports list the usual motley assortment of hockey injuries: broken wrists, shoulder surgeries, knee surgeries and the like.

Only two players – Union’s Mike Ingoldsby and St. Cloud State’s David Morley – were reported as having concussion-like symptoms. The NHL, with roughly only half as many players as in Division I, had, as of Saturday morning, 17 players listed as out with a concussion or concussion-like symptoms.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that full cages cut down on concussions. There are far too many other variables to consider.

College players aren’t as big or as fast as NHL players. Referees can call games tighter in college. College players also aren’t allowed to fight. Some teams such as Alaska, Northern Michigan and Colorado College play on Olympic-size rinks, where play tends to veer away from the boards and corners, and physical teams are neutralized.

College hockey isn’t completely clean. After all, a 2010 study from the University of North Carolina’s Matthew A. Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center found that college hockey players suffered 1.47 concussions per 1,000 hours played, a rate much higher than in any other NCAA scholarship sport.

That’s far from perfect, but miles ahead of where the NHL is on the matter.

Reports around the All-Star break emerged that there had been 54 concussions this season. If that’s accurate, then NHL players would be suffering concussions at a rate of roughly 6.5 per 1,000 hours played – or more than four times as often as college players.

That leads to the big question: does the NCAA actually have it right on head injuries? Or does it at least have a better grasp on the problem than the NHL does? It better. Player safety is more paramount to the NCAA, because these young men need to do more than play hockey.

“It was hard for school,” Ingoldsby reminded the Schenectady Daily-Gazette. “Just little things, like trying to concentrate, trying to focus just on a lecture. Trying to listen to the professors made the headaches a lot worse. Just trying to do the readings and writing the essays was getting to the point where I had pretty debilitating headaches.”

For the young adults plying their hockey trade on campuses across the country, a concussion doesn’t just threaten their hockey careers, but any other career they may choose as well. Don’t those NCAA commercials remind us at least once a week that most of their athletes go pro in something other than sports?

Where the NHL can learn from the NCAA is in its partnerships. Not surprisingly, the NCAA doesn’t shy away from academia. It has developed a strong relationship with the North Carolina group and its head researcher Jason Mihalik, who continue to publish some of the more ground-breaking findings on sports concussions. The intentions of this work and partnership are no secret.

On the topic of women hockey players suffering concussions at a higher rate than their male counterparts, Mihalik wrote on the NCAA website, “We’re still exploring the contributions of these factors on injuries but carrying these findings over to injury prevention interventions seems a logical next step: Injury prevention interventions.”

When was the last time we heard that from Brendan Shanahan, the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety? Have we ever?

All we get from the league is a public relations pitch of tougher enforcement on head shots. That’ll take care of the concussion issue, right? Not so, says Mihalik.

“Certainly an impact directly to the head is more likely to stop it suddenly, but impulsive (indirect) blows are also very capable of causing a concussion,” wrote Mihalik in an NCAA interview. “In fact, this mechanism of injury has been highlighted in the Concussion in Sport consensus statements. Concussion is a very common and real injury that motor-vehicle accidents victims sustain, often due to the violent whiplash mechanisms they experience during their accident.”

Perhaps that’s why the NCAA has taken a zero-tolerance stance on fighting, and a harder stance on checking from behind. Yes, head shots are bad, but being throttled violently and unexpectedly from behind can be just as harmful.

While the NHL will erratically dish out two-minute minors for boarding in some cases, NCAA referees are quick to dish out five-minute majors and game misconducts for such infractions. More and more often, conferences are handing out suspensions as well.

The NHL may be getting tough, but not tough enough. That’s just plain academic. The NCAA knows it.

NOTES

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which debuts in 2013-14, has already secured a national television deal with CBS Sports Network. The agreement calls for CBSSN – more recently known as CBS College Sports Network and less recently as College Sports TV – to broadcast 18 conference games, including the league’s playoff semifinals and championship game. … File under “Fans Taking Things to a Whole New Level”: There are petitions before the North Dakota secretary of state to include a voter initiative that would resurrect the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname as part of state law. The University has been gradually phasing out the classic nickname and Indian-head logo from most of its media and marketing material. … Reports out of Detroit are that the Winter Classic festival will host at least one NCAA game next season on an outdoor rink to be built at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. 

Last Updated on Sunday, 12 February 2012 03:40