EL SEGUNDO, CA — We’re not even at the halfway point of the 2011-12 National Hockey League season, but far too many players have already gone down due to concussions.
In no particular order, the NHL has lost stars like Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, all to concussions.
Most notably, the league has also lost Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, who is expected to miss the rest of the season, and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar forward Sidney Crosby is out indefinitely after a recurrence of post-concussion syndrome.
Crosby, who is, arguably, the best player in the league, missed 41 games last season, and has played in just eight this season with no timetable for his return, after a high hit by then-Washington Capitals forward David Steckel during the 2011 Winter Classic, followed by another big hit by Victor Hedman on January 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Here in Southern California, Los Angeles Kings center Mike Richards recently missed eight games due to a concussion. Without him, the Kings went into a nose dive, losing five straight before winning a 2-1 decision at Columbus on December 15, on their way to a dismal 2-6-0 record in those eight games.
Since returning to the lineup on December 22, the Kings are undefeated in regulation play, earning a 3-0-1 record in their last four games.
Gagne, who has a history of concussions, was placed on injured reserve, and did not make the Kings’ current two-game trip to Chicago and Winnipeg. The earliest he can return to the lineup would be on January 5, 2012, when the Kings host the Coyotes.
Those who follow the Kings should be rather familiar with players going down like flies due to concussions. After all, from 2000-01 to 2002-03, eight Kings players suffered concussions, including Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, a total of 433 man-games out of the unfathomable total of 1,742 man-games the Kings lost to injury over those three dreadful seasons.
Despite all the concussions, the NHL is working to protect its players, and has added a new rule this season:
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
The NHL has also been more proactive than at any point in their history with supplementary discipline decisions under this rule to this point in the season. But there has been some push back against the new rule, as many claim that it is taking hitting out of the game.
But don’t bother trying to convince Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell of that.
“When we got rid of obstruction, it was the same thing,” said Mitchell. “Everyone was bitching about it, saying it was ridiculous, especially as a defenseman. That affected us the most of anyone. We couldn’t hold [guys] up for our partners.”
“It’s just like anything else [when dealing with] change,” added Mitchell. “As human beings, we have a real narrow comfort zone. Sometimes, we really don’t adapt to change. It’s the same thing with the new rules [regarding contact with the head]. ‘We’re taking too much hitting out of the game.’ No, we’re not. There are still great hits, big hits. It just that same thing where guys are used to a certain way, so they’re slow on the uptake.”
“They’re doing a pretty good job on suspension length, and when it hits you in the pocketbook, you think twice about it.”
When it comes to concussions, Mitchell, 34, speaks from experience, having suffered three concussions during his 13-year career in professional hockey.
His last concussion forced him to sit out the last 34 regular season games of the 2009-10 season with the Vancouver Canucks, along with all post-season contests.
“You can’t do anything,” Mitchell emphasized. “You can’t read, you can’t drive your car. It hurts. You’re living in pain.”
“It gives you a little snippet into a terminal illness, because it not only bothers you physically, but there is an emotional aspect as well, when you wake up every day, and you don’t feel better,” Mitchell added. “That can take its toll. What does stress do? It gives you a headache, and the thing you’re trying to get away from is the headache.”
Mitchell suffered for a long time, wondering if he would ever recover and play hockey again. But one man and an audio CD changed everything.
“A guy named Ryan Walter—[he] played in the NHL for a long time—he’s a really good motivational speaker,” said Mitchell. “He coached in Vancouver. He gave me a CD called Maverick Mindset. I never picked it up. I had my concussion, and I was going into the hyperbaric chamber all the time, because I heard that oxygen was good for cell repair.”
“[One day, he] thought, ‘I’m going to try this,’ because when you’re in a chronic state of pain, you’ll try anything to get healthy,” added Mitchell. “You’re sitting in there for an hour doing nothing, so I thought, ‘I’ll pick up this CD he gave me.’”
That CD totally changed his focus and approach.
“There’s a lot of external factors,” Mitchell explained. “They play a role in how long a concussion [persists]. The CD was all about controlling the things you can control, and not worrying about all the small stuff in life. When you expend all your energy on that, you [add] stress, and waste all your energy on that, instead of [focusing] it on what you can control, and it’s probably one of the best things I’ve picked up in my life.”
“For a brain injury, it’s the same thing,” added Mitchell. “I couldn’t control when I was going to get better. I worried about that, and, therefore, took longer to recover. I just [concerned myself with] controlling what I could control. Enjoying the day, doing the best I could every day, getting massages, and just being happy and thankful for all the little improvements I saw, because sometimes, you [worry] about it when things don’t happen quick enough.”
“That was the number one thing for me in getting healthy.”
But it took more than a CD for Mitchell to get himself back on the upswing. In fact, he needed total isolation.
“Some of those external factors that you can’t control—sometimes you want to ignore them, but sometimes, you can’t,” he noted. “I was in Vancouver, we were in the playoffs, and I’m a [British Columbia] boy, so I was kind of a fan favorite up there. Whereever I walked, it was, ‘how’s your head?’”
“That was the last thing I wanted to talk about or think about,” he added. “I just wanted to disconnect from that. So I went up to my place in the middle of nowhere, in the forest, and just chilled. It wasn’t until [the Canucks] got knocked out of the playoffs—all those external factors—there was no more pressure on me to come back, no more pressure on myself to help my teammates. All of a sudden, [he lost all the stress generated by those factors].”
“Like I said, stress gives you a headache. Stress is tough on the brain, on the body, it ages people. It does all those things, so if you can find a way to disconnect from all that, it helps.”
Mitchell shared his experience and wisdom with Richards during his recovery, but he made sure not to overdo it.
“I talked to him a couple of times,” said Mitchell. “It’s something that you don’t want to talk to him too much about, because, like I alluded to earlier, if everyone’s asking him, ‘how are you doing,’ he’s going to be in a stressful state, and he’s not going to get healthy.”
“I talked to him about my experiences, and just said to be smart, take your time, and don’t push it, because you see it all around the league from the guys who push it—the recurrences.”
Progress Being Made, But More Must Be Done
If there was anyone the NHL should look to for guidance on what to do to protect its players from concussions, it’s Mitchell. Indeed, an early December interview turned out to be fascinating and a bit mind-boggling because it was quite clear that he has a great depth of knowledge on the subject for someone who is not a doctor.
In fact, Mitchell did some rather extensive research during his recovery, and is one of the most well-versed NHL players on the matter of concussions, if not the leader among his peers in that area.
Mitchell maintains that even with all the concussions across the league so far this season, things are not as bad as they might seem.
“It’s getting better,” he stressed. “It’s a double-edged sword. I think we’re seeing them more because we’re doing a better job diagnosing them. We’re also seeing more because the [players are] bigger, faster and stronger, and there’s less clutch and grab.”
“That’s just the reality of it,” he added. “That’s not a knock on the guys who played in the generations before us. They were tremendous players. But now, it’s year-round. Guys are in the gym all the time.”
That said, Mitchell could not stress enough that more has to be done to protect the players. But he added that things are getting better, and that it is a work-in-progress.
“We have to find a way to make our players safer, and I think they’re doing a good job,” said Mitchell. “It doesn’t happen overnight. This game has changed a lot over the years, in many different areas. With the head injuries, you’re seeing the change there.”
“It’s not like you’re going to flip a switch, and no one’s going to walk around with a concussion,” added Mitchell. “It’s going to be a progression. Last year, even though everyone thought it was a terrible year, it was actually a progression, and that progression was awareness. This year, you’re seeing implementation of it. Is it a perfected art yet? No, but it’s getting there, and I think they’re doing a great job.”
Mitchell also stressed that helmets need to improve.
“These helmets—I’d like to see them go more custom [fitted],” he lamented. “They’re all just generic helmets. We all have differently shaped skulls, so they don’t fit you perfectly. If you have a helmet that fits you, it’ll disperse that energy more, instead of shaking your brain.”
“There’s a genetic component, too,” he added. “You have your brain, then your skull, then the spinal fluid around it. If you don’t have much room there, your brain hits the inside of your skull, so some are more susceptible than others.”
“Our heads are not made to take huge blows. They’re made with the biggest, strongest bones in our body—the skull—to protect us. It’s made that way for a reason. [But] we don’t fully understand it yet. The human body is quite complex.”
Once again, Mitchell speaks from experience, having switched to the custom-fitted M11 helmet from Cascade Sports last season.
Mitchell also put the physical component of the game into a rather different perspective.
“We play this great game [in which] I get into a car wreck six times a night, 82 times a year, plus playoffs, now in my 13th season at the professional level,” he noted. “The rest of my teammates do, too. How many people get into a car wreck in their [entire] life? Hopefully never, but maybe once in their life?”
“[Hitting is] part of the game. We accept that, we know it can happen. It’s a physical game. We go out and play the sport knowing that, and that’s what makes it great, fast, [and] exciting. I’d just like to see us take away all the things that are in our control to not have my peers susceptible to [concussions].”
Raw Audio Interview with Willie Mitchell
(11:37; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
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