I would like to call out the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
Amidst questions of whether Sidney Crosby’s concussion will end his season, we all know that Boston’s Marc Savard’s latest concussion may end his career. Savard is 33 years old and has a history of head injury throughout his 14-year professional career. Crosby, a decade younger, does not–and if the Pittsburgh Penguins intend to hold on to their franchise player, they would be wise to keep it that way.
Five days following Savard’s loss of consciousness after a blindside hit from (ironically) the Penguin’s Matt Cooke, a physiatrist determined that he would mostly likely miss the rest of the season. A month later, just one week before the start of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, NHL.com reported that Savard was still suffering from post-concussion symptoms including headaches, exhaustion, occasional light-headedness and difficultly sleeping, for which he was prescribed sleep aids. The two-time NHL All-Star was not even able to ride an exercise bike, much less begin to contemplate a return to the rink.
And somehow, less than two weeks later, Savard had passed neuropsychological tests and was ultimately cleared to return to the ice. He re-joined his teammates at practice on April 22 and, on May 1, took 23 shifts and scored the game winning, overtime goal in Boston’s 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first game of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. When the Bruins fell to the Flyers in seven games, it was assumed that Savard would spend his four month off-season working on a return to his pre-concussed form and by the following season, the accident would be an afterthought. Unfortunately, as we know now, that was far from the case. Savard missed the first three months of the 2010-2011 season and then, just 25 games into his return, he suffered yet another season-ending concussion. It’s unknown whether allowing Savard to play in the playoffs exacerbated his injury but the evidence is strong–how does one go from being diagnosed with a season-ending concussion in early March and still reporting lingering symptoms up to a month later to suddenly resuming intense, full-contact, playoff hockey by the end of April? The answer is: they don’t. Looking at Marc Savard’s condition now, the reason why is obvious.
Given this, one has to wonder why the Penguins would have ever let Sidney Crosby back on the ice following his collision with Washington’s David Steckel or after he was boarded a week later in a game against Tampa Bay. It’s unclear which hit may have caused the concussion or if the first hit simply set in motion what would be finished by the next, but there should never have been an opportunity for the “next” hit. The way Pittsburgh has handled the situation is illustrative of a broader problem within the NHL. While the league is currently engaged in a very public discussion on how to prevent head shots and how to penalize players who break the rules, half the danger is obscured. Allowing a player to return to play after a suspected head injury is dangerous; it can be just as detrimental as being hit in the head in the first place. Yet, he continued to play full-contact hockey immediately following both incidents.
Neither the Penguins nor the NHL were able to keep Crosby from initially getting hurt, but they did get a second chance to protect him. They chose not to take it. And now, while we all wait for Crosby’s prognosis (which is not looking good thus far), we can wonder if those two periods of mid-season hockey were really worth playing now that the rest of his season is in jeopardy. I wonder what Marc Savard would say.