The back and forth and alarm has mostly subsided regarding Sidney Crosby and his head-first collision with the boards in Game 6 of the series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. Nevertheless, the incident does warrant further review by the NHL as does its concussion protocol. Crosby had sustained a concussion only a week earlier in Game 3, and missed Game 4.
As is always the case in playoff hockey, the Penguins and Capitals engaged in a face, hard-hitting series. There is no place for the faint of heart when these two square off. In Game 6, the pace of play was no different. Quick and tough is the mantra of playoff hockey, and it is even dialed a notch when these two teams are playing one another.
The Capitals were up 1-0 as the first period was winding down with. the Penguins on a power play. Crosby was tripped up as he went by Braden Holtby and crashed head first into the boards with defenseman John Carlson of the Caps. Teammate Patric Hörnqvist fell on top of him as the play continued.
Crosby stayed on the ice momentarily, then got up and finished his shift. The fact that his head was bent towards his body made the play look even more disconcerting, especially considering his having had a concussion a week prior. Crosby went on to finish the game, logging more ice time than any of the other forwards. The best player in the world had already missed a game due to being concussed a fourth time in his career in Game 3. Was him coming out of this game ever even an issue?
The controversy that followed the crash into the boards centered on whether Crosby was evaluated properly, (or at all) for a concussion after his head-first crash into the boards. Crosby and Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan contributed to the controversy. After the game when asked whether Crosby was evaluated for a concussion Sullivan said, “No.” Crosby, however, answered after the game that he had been checked out, but did not specify if he had gone through the concussion protocol.
Crosby Answers on Mike & Mike
On May 12, in an appearance on the Mike & Mike radio program on ESPN, Crosby gave a more thorough answer. Crosby said,
I’m not even sure if my head contacted the boards. It’s kind of hard when you get twisted up that much. All I felt when I came away from that hit was that I’d lost my wind.
Crosby added, “It didn’t look good, I know that, but having gone through a couple of instances like that, I think I have a pretty good idea when you know it’s a good one and when it wasn’t, and I think I was pretty lucky in that scenario with everything that happened.”
From Crosby we are to believe that he was fine and the concussion protocol was not ignored. In fact, in his description of the incident he’s not sure his head made contact with the boards. But, is it possible that he actually should have been pulled off the ice for his own health and safety? Crosby says no:
That was right at the end of the period. I talked to our team doctor in between periods. He’s the one who decides whether, depending on your symptoms and what you’re feeling, you need to enter the concussion protocol. In talking to him, the only thing I told him I felt was just being winded. Everything else was good.
Crosby concluded by saying, “There was no reason to enter the concussion protocol. Having the incident happen shortly after getting a concussion, five days or six days earlier, it’s something that everyone was pretty aware of. I don’t think they would have taken any chances if that was the case. Luckily I was okay.”
Why the Fuss, Then?
Because it looked really bad and Crosby has had four concussions already. Honestly, I was shocked that he came back for Game 5 with such a short time out to recover from the concussion. But, it is the playoffs and he is Crosby.
On May 9, Jesse Doughtery or Chicago Tribune summarized the situation perfectly. Doughtery wrote, “The public concern surrounding Crosby is heightened because it has been just seven days since he sustained a concussion on a high cross-check by Matt Niskanen. That was the fourth reported concussion of his career and kept him out of Game 4 last Wednesday. The 29-year-old has missed 115 games due to concussion-related issues.”
If this were the NFL, with the spotlight on concussions it has had over the past five years, perhaps Crosby would have been sidelined. But, he said he was fine, isn’t sure he actually hit his head, and moved on.
NHL Rules Need a Tweak
The NHL concussion protocol is bit confusing, which does not help in this situation. For example, the boards do not constitute a “mechanism of injury.” In a USA Today Sports follow-up on this story on May 9, AJ Perez and Kevin Allen wrote, “Concussion spotters didn’t have the authority to pull Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby from Game 6 on Monday because his head-first collision with the boards is not a ‘mechanism of injury’ that allows that under their guidelines.”
Perez and Allen quoted NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, “Depending on the mechanism of injury, ‘slow to get up’ does not trigger mandatory removal. The protocol has to be interpreted literally to mandate a removal. ‘Ice’ as compared to ‘boards’ is in there for a reason. It’s the result of a study on our actual experiences over a number of years. ‘Ice’ has been found to be a predictor of concussions — ‘boards’ has not been.”
In other words, if a player hits his head on the ice, that triggers a mandatory removal from the game. But, crashing into the boards does not.
Perez and Allen wrote, “Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told USA TODAY Sports that the league has a ‘a poorly written policy that should be amended before the puck is dropped in another NHL game. Any head contact is a possible mechanism of injury. I can’t believe we have to say that in 2017.'”
In the meantime, the Penguins with Crosby put away the Capitals in seven games, and are down 0-1 to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Finals. Crosby is still playing.