ORONO — The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team has suffered seven concussions this season, an unusually high number that may support Maine head coach Tim Whitehead’s belief that concussions are becoming more prevalent in hockey.
“There has been a dramatic increase over the past 10 years, particularly the last five,” said Whitehead, basing his statement on his coaching experiences. “It’s a growing problem in the sport at all levels.”
The Maine hockey team usually incurs two or three concussions every year, according to University of Maine director of hockey operations and athletic trainer Paul Culina.
“This is just a weird year,” he said.
Culina doesn’t think there has been a significant increase in concussions.
“It’s just that more attention is being paid to concussions, top to bottom,” said Culina.
He said there has been considerably more media coverage about concussions. That can be linked to concussions suffered by high-profile athletes such as Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and former University of Maine Hobey Baker Award winner Paul Kariya, whose career was cut short by a series of concussions.
“There is more awareness now. [Athletes] are much more inclined to report concussions [than they used to be],” he said.
“I know I had concussions when I played in the early ’80s but you kept playing,” said Whitehead.
Culina said there are simply some years when one particular injury is prevalent.
“One year in football, we had six broken wrists,” pointed out Culina. “It’s weird but it happens. Sometimes you might have the year of the shoulder [injury].”
He also said it isn’t a trend.
“I’ve talked to a lot of trainers around [Hockey East] and they don’t feel there’s [an upward] trend,” said Culina.
Three of the seven concussions on the Maine team have been incurred by one player, senior center Kyle Beattie.
Beattie is currently recuperating from his third concussion suffered on Friday night when he was rammed into the boards by Providence College’s Tim Schaller.
The other players who suffered concussions are senior left wing Adam Shemansky, senior center Klas Leidermark, senior defenseman Nick Pryor and junior defenseman Brice O’Connor.
Pryor has been sidelined since Jan. 5 while the other three have returned to the lineup.
Pryor and Shemansky suffered concussions during the 2010-11 season at Maine and missed significant time. Kyle Solomon didn’t return to the team that year after suffering six concussions at various stages of his career and Kelen Corkum, who had missed two years with post-concussion syndrome, played just five games before hip and back injuries ended his career.
The only two Black Bear concussions last season were by O’Connor and Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott. Both returned to the lineup.
A disturbing trend
Whitehead pinpointed reasons behind this season’s disturbing trend.
“When the NHL had its previous lockout in 2004-2005, rule changes came into play when they returned [to entice fans to return]. They eliminated most of the hooking-and-holding, clutching-and-grabbing and obstruction,” said Whitehead. “So the speed of the game elevated significantly [and the collisions were more violent].”
Whitehead pointed out that college hockey took the lead on eliminating those penalties before the 2004-2005 season when the NCAA mandated several points of emphasis including the elimination of holding along the boards and in the neutral zone when players were trying to break free to receive a pass or gain a loose puck.
In the season before the lockout, there was an average of 5.14 goals per NHL game. So by penalizing tactics used to play a clutch-and-grab defense, the goal scoring went up significantly in the season after the lockout (6.16 goals per game).
The NHL’s mandate validated the NCAA’s decision to open the game up.
The other reasons were a change in equipment and the improvement in the strength and conditioning of the players which have resulted in harder hits.
Whitehead and associate head coach Bob Corkum pointed out that the new equipment was made of hard plastic instead of soft leather.
“The protective equipment was too protective,” said Corkum, who played 720 games in the NHL over a 13-year span. “When you got hit with a hard plastic elbow pad or shoulder pad, it did more damage.”
Whitehead is also adamant about referees needing to enforce the blindside hits and contact-to-the-head penalties even more than they do now.
“There needs to be much stricter enforcement of those penalties,” said Whitehead who is still irritated that Schaller was never penalized for the hit on Beattie.
“Schaller took the next faceoff while we lost Beattie for the rest of the game and possibly for the rest of the season,” said Whitehead. “It was mind-boggling.
But the Maine coach said he sees vicious hits to the head at all levels of hockey, many of which aren’t penalized.
“They need the same vigilance they showed when they clamped down on the hitting-from-behind several years ago,” said Whitehead. “If the punishments are more stringent, you’ve got to believe the players will curb their behavior.”
The role of helmets
Whitehead and Culina have different opinions pertaining to the role of helmets in concussions.
“We need to look at going to football-style helmets,” insisted Whitehead. “Hockey helmets have improved but they’re not close [to providing the protection offered by] football helmets.”
“I’ve never been a huge believer that helmets are to blame for [concussions] or that they prevent them,” said Culina, who has been involved as a hockey trainer for 20 years including stints at Norwich University and Bowdoin College before he came to Maine. “You can get a concussion without hitting your head at all. It’s similar to shaken-baby syndrome. The sudden shaking, acceleration or deceleration [of the head] can cause problems.
“The brain is like an egg yolk. The egg shell is like a skull and the egg white is like the cerebral spinal fluid that protects the brain.”
Beattie and O’Connor feel the equipment they have is adequate.
Beattie pointed out that the equipment is the same they have used in his four years and there weren’t as many concussions in previous years.
“I suppose they could always improve the equipment but everybody else is using the same equipment we use,” said Beattie.
“I feel we’re equipped well enough,” concurred O’Connor. “They’re just going to have to keep taking steps, technology-wise, to improve the helmets and try to eliminate the blind-side hits and contact to the head.”
Beattie said that with the exception of Schaller’s hit on him, the previous two concussions he suffered or the ones that were suffered by his teammates weren’t caused by opponents’ chippiness.
“Most of them weren’t cheap shots,” said Beattie. “They happen in some weird ways. In my first one, I ran into the boards when I fell over. The second one, a guy hit me and his head hit my head. It wasn’t legal but it wasn’t a blatant cheap shot or anything. They can happen in any way.”
O’Connor didn’t feel he was a victim of a cheap shot, either, when he got injured in a 6-0 loss at Merrimack College on Jan. 12.
“I was trying to wheel around the net and and got rubbed out near the side of the net and my head hit a stanchion on the glass,” said O’Connor. “It wasn’t a dirty hit. It just happened. I didn’t get my hands up to cushion my blow and I hit my face the wrong way on the glass. It was a freak accident.”
The cutting edge of concussion care
Whitehead, Corkum and the players said they feel fortunate to have Culina on board.
Whitehead said Culina is on the cutting edge of concussion care thanks to his work with Hermon native Dr. Micky Collins, the director of the sports concussion program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and one of the top experts on head injuries.
“He’s right up to speed with the latest [on concussion analysis and care]. He’s right on top of it. He treats our players with kid gloves,” said Corkum.
“They’re very careful. They keep close eyes on us all the time,” said Beattie.
Culina said every concussion has to be treated separately although he uses the same comprehensive approach to diagnosing and handling the injury.
Neuropsychological testing has been a staple at Maine since the 1999-2000 season. There is an NCAA-mandated protocol and all student-athletes have their balance and vestibular systems (inner ear, brain) tested in the fall.
Upon suffering the injury, the athlete is monitored carefully for the next 24 hours.
They are quizzed about their symptoms and the answers are compared to their health history from the student-athlete’s annual questionnaire.
An ImPACT computer test is taken by the athlete a day or two after the injury and the student-athlete must fill out a form every day rating their symptoms on a scale from 0-6.
When the athlete is finally feeling normal, he or she does some light exertion to see if it produces any concussion symptoms.
The exercise regimen is expanded every day for five days and the fifth day would allow the player to return to full practice with full contact if they remain symptom-free over the previous four days.
“Every patient is different,” said Culina. “But with someone who suffers a concussion for the first time, there is usually an 85 percent resolution within a week to 10 days.”
He said a player who receives a concussion isn’t necessarily more prone to future concussions but “the second time they receive a concussion, the recovery time is going to be longer.
“The other thing to keep in mind is the longer someone is out, the longer it takes to get them to get back,” added Culina. “If you have someone who’s out for a month and then they feel great, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be ready to return because of their [lack of] conditioning.”
O’Connor and Beattie suffered several of the symptoms associated with concussions.
“I was dazed [when it happened],” said O’Connor. “When I got back to the bench, I didn’t have a clue what happened. I didn’t remember anything.”
He didn’t play the rest of the game.
“I didn’t know what went on after the game, either, and I had a severe headache and I was nauseous all the way home,” said O’Connor. “I thought I was going to throw up.”
He missed a week of school and was hunkered down in a dark room without being allowed to watch television, text message or play video games.
He gradually got better but it took two weeks to be symptom-free.
He eventually returned to the lineup last Sunday.
Activity can lead to the return of symptoms.
Beattie said, “I just feel drowsy and tired. It’s different for everyone. It’s hit-and-miss with the symptoms.
“It’s kind of a strange injury. There’s nothing you can do but wait,” said Beattie who hopes to return later this season.
The players know contact is part of the game and concussions are going to occur.
“Physical play is a big part of hockey. That’s why I enjoy the game and why most people enjoy it. You can’t get rid of it completely,” said O’Connor.