Sidney Crosby and the Human Car Wreck

As the NHL keeps its head down on concussions, a crisis is looming.

Brian Babineau, Getty Images


For the anonymous armchair critics and disembodied voices that preside over the internet’s black hole—the vitriolic “Comments Section”—Sidney Crosby’s lingering head trauma is not real. His pain, experienced in streaming pixels, is merely fresh kindling for the antagonists, bedroom pundits and Twitiots to throw onto the roaring bonfire that currently has humanity’s feet to the flames.

“David Steckel is now my favorite player, just because he hurt Crosby,” posts one YouTube commenter.  

The participants in the conversation taking place in the bowels of “Sidney Crosby Gets Destroyed in the Winter Classic (HD)” analyze the video frame by frame, speculating on the intent of Mr. Steckel before the amateur forensic analysis devolves into the participants flinging accusations of racism, misogyny, myopia and (I’m not making this up) Marxism at one another.

“Hell yeah,” adds a commenter, “Great job, Steckel.”

“Call the whaaambulance,” says another. “Go Caps.” Though I have to wonder if the commenter had similar feelings three days ago when Capitals defenseman Mike Green was cranially assaulted by a flying elbow from the Rangers’ Derek Stepan.

I understand the disconnect. At this point in his celebrity, Sidney Crosby is merely a poster; for adoration or for throwing darts. They cannot feel his pain.

They cannot feel the woozying boat-rock of a routine walk down the hall. The buckled knees and swirling wallpaper. The clatter of a pot in the sink amplified a thousand decibels. The shards of sunlight that pour through the blinds and cut like glass. The godforsaken monkey with a cymbal that lives inside his head. And the thing he was doing … What was that thing? He forgets. He doesn’t even try to remember. Just sleep. Sleep. Wallow below the deck of the rocking ship.

For the rabble-rousing hoi polloi of the internet, this is a game. A test of wits. A vessel for flinging shit at the anonymous enemy inside the machine.

But for the players who suffer head trauma, the danger is very real.

The Dark Matter

Thanks to the excellent reporting of The New York TimesAlan Schwartz, the world is now very familiar with the brain damage found in some deceased NFL players. The damage, associated with repeated head trauma, is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a neurodegenerative disease known to cause cognitive decline, behavioral abnormalities and, ultimately, dementia.

The birth of research on C.T.E. started in Pittsburgh in 2002, when an autopsy of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster revealed dark brown spots on his brain. The spots, called “tau,” are a build-up of abnormal protein that was previously associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Soon after, the brains of other deceased NFL players who had struggled with mental problems and depression were donated for medical research.

Thirteen of the 14 deceased NFL players who have been examined for the disease by Boston University researchers were found to have C.T.E.

In December 2009, the first former NHLer joined their ranks. Reggie Fleming, a bruiser who played in the NHL from 1959-1974, was found to have C.T.E. after his death at age 73. Fleming started having significant short-term memory problems in his 50s, according to his son, and often succumbed to violent outbursts.

“Boxing we’ve known for a long time, football we’ve recently become aware of — now hockey,” said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University. “Repetitive head injuries can have very serious long-term consequences, regardless of how you get them.”

Twelve NHL players have agreed to donate their brains to research after their deaths. One of them is former Philadelphia Flyer Keith Primeau, who played in the league for 15 seasons. Primeau, now 39, admitted to USA Today in 2009 that he’s already struggling with the red-flag symptoms of C.T.E.

"I can't get my head off the pillow for a couple of days," Primeau said. "Any illness goes straight to my head. I get a headache, and it feels like it's a hundred-pound cinder block. I go into a natural fog. I wouldn't be able to focus."

This morning, news broke that a second NHL player, the recently deceased Bob Probert, was found to have C.T.E. Probert, who played from 1985-2002, died suddenly of a heart attack in July at age 45. He had suffered at least three concussions during his career and, according to his wife Dani, he begun to show signs of cognitive impairment in his 40s:

“If he was playing blackjack, he could remember plays from years ago, and every player’s hand and what the dealer had," she told The Globe and Mail. "But boy, if you asked him what he had for breakfast that morning … It definitely makes you think.”

Probert's case proves that head trauma is not just a long-term consequence, something that can be dismissed with "hey, getting old's a bitch," but a short-term threat.

The Crash Test Dummies

Imagine Sidney Crosby in a car crash. At 25-miles-per-hour with no seatbelt. That’s the stakes we’re dealing with when we talk about head injuries. Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina's sports concussion research program conducted the most comprehensive study on athletic head trauma to date. Guskiewicz outfitted UNC football players’ helmets with small microsensors that tracked the g-force absorbed during collisions. The research found that the average acceleration of a head collision in football is about 23 gravitational force units (g). But hits above 50 and even 100gs were common. One player sustained a 168g hit.

In car crash tests at 25 mph, dummies hit windshields at 100g.

One could argue that NHL players don’t absorb as much physical punishment as an NFL lineman during the course of a game. But the NFL season is 16 games. The NHL plays 82, with playoff runs that can extend the total to more than 100. The game’s superstars begin their careers at age 18 or 19. In his brief six-year NHL career, Crosby has already racked up 474 games. That’s room for a lot of car crashes.

The high rate of speed that is common of hockey’s open-ice hits is also a cause for great concern. Guskiewicz’s research found that players were far more susceptible to concussions on special teams plays, where the rate of speed and unpredictable angles are more comparable to a hockey collision.

How many 100g hits would you guess are in this video?

The Cultural Problem

Hockey is faced with a unique conundrum, in that the mainstream media, namely the oligarchs at ESPN, are fond of squeezing in hockey highlights between golfer follies and NASCAR patronization only if the video involves pugilistic goalies, bench-clearing brawls, zany shootout goals or sickening crash-test collisions.

Without fail, the punch-line to every bloodied, plug-nosed, swollen-faced hockey player with a few missing chicklets is the sport’s blue-collar-anthem-turned-SportsCenter cliche, “He came back in the game, he’s a hockey player.”

It’s just what hockey players do. It’s what Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy did when he caught a 90-mile-an-hour piece of vulcanized rubber with his left cheek. It’s what Evgeni Malkin did when Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers accidentally turned his leg into a vaulting pole, tearing his ACL and MCL. It’s what Sidney Crosby did when he turned his head to meet a speeding bus.

Hockey players get up. They rarely ever stay down.

Much like the American political climate, the dialogue surrounding the NHL’s concussion epidemic can’t seem to rise above of the muck and mire of mudslinging. The conversation focuses of assigning blame to players and not on the rules and overarching culture of the game itself.

The fact is, David Steckel didn’t see Sidney Crosby coming into his path, specifically. He probably didn’t see anybody, for that matter. But as anyone who has ever laced up skates for a game of pick-up hockey can tell you, he felt someone coming. Hockey players live and die with their peripheral vision; their instincts. They slalom through blurs and shadows for a living. They feel danger.

Steckel felt danger coming at him and he skated right through it. It’s hard to blame him. 99 players out of 100 would do the same, because that’s how they are coached from pee-wee through the minor leagues: Only wussies avoid danger. Instead, embrace it. Obliterate it. 

Don't think head trauma is a concern at the youth level? Don't think young kids imitate NHL stars? Look at the scrums going on in this video. Looks like a bunch of mini Matt Cookes.

Steckel could’ve done a quick sashay to avoid Crosby, but that’s not what hockey players do. He would have been ridiculed by teammates, coaches and fans alike. The NHL needs to take steps this off-season to change that philosophy.

Forget the sanctimony of the game. For the sake of players’ long-term health, for the sake of the superstars who are currently trapped at the bottom of the rollicking boat that is their shuttered bedroom, who can’t skate a lap without spontaneously throwing up—Sidney Crosby, Brad Richards, Marc Savard, Dan Hamhuis, Mike Green, David Perron, Peter Mueller, Paul Kariya, Marian Gaborik—and for the sake of the millions of youth hockey players who look to the NHL game as their model for behavior, the league must take an unpopular stand.

Ban blindside open-ice hits completely. White out “… to the head.” Stop debating the unknowable vagaries of “intent.” Mandate that players to avoid a helpless opponent at all costs.

Many will argue that banning open-ice hits would change the fundamental nature of the game. But the history of hockey is nothing if not the history of change. Curving sticks fundamentally changed the nature of hockey. As did improvements to goalie equipment. And carbon fiber sticks, and the shootout, and the extinction of the two-line pass. And let’s not forget the most radical safety measure of all, the game-changer that got us into this mess: making helmets mandatory.

Crosby’s injury is a microcosm of the danger athletes face in the long-term. One day, you’re an Olympic gold medalist, a Stanley Cup champion and the NHL’s leading scorer. A few days later, you’re struggling to watch television.

One day you’re Mike Webster. Or Justin Strelzyk. Or Andre Waters. Or Dave Duerson. Or Reggie Fleming. On top of the world; untouchable. A few years later, you can’t remember who you are anymore. You’re a husk.

Target: 87

The scientific data is troubling if not terrifying. Unlike Steckel, the NHL can’t claim that they didn’t see it coming. If the trend continues, aging NHL players will face the same grim fate as the NFL’s boomers. Under current NHL rules, Crosby will be in serious danger when he returns to the ice. He will be a target. And if you don’t believe that, ask Eric Lindros.

After suffering his fourth concussion in March 2000, Lindros returned to the lineup in May for the Flyers’ match-up against the rival Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Devils’ Scott Stevens had this to say about Lindros’ return:

“Yes, if I can hit him, I'm going to hit him when he's got the puck. I'm not going to go out of my way, I'm not going to hit him dirty, but I have to finish checks, and I know that if he's got a chance to hit me, he will."

Then seven minutes into Game 7 of the Eastern Finals, Stevens eviscerated an unsuspecting Lindros at the blue-line. Lindros sat out the rest of the next season. The former No. 1 pick was never the same. His star was snuffed out at age 27.

It’s a cautionary tale for Penguins fans who imagine Crosby’s reign in black-and-gold as being measured in decades, not years or moments. Those growing impatient with Sid’s return would be wise to remember the words of Flyers’ team doctor Gary Dorshimer after Lindros’ second concussion: “He has no headaches, and on his exam, everything looked normal. He's back to his baseline.”

And the foreboding words of Lindros himself just two months before suffering his third: "If there's any balance in this world, I should have about 10 years of free sailing."

More than a decade later, Penguins fans, NHL officials and all the corporate partners of Empire Crosby are no doubt clinging to that same naive, karmic hope. Yet the world that ruined Lindros is still the world Crosby inhabits. The raised elbows. The inadvertent shrug of a shoulder to meet an passing jaw, the sickening pop of plastic pads against bone.

So we assign blame: To Steckel. To Crosby. Or the next two participants in the YouTube human car wreck of the week. We analyze every frame. But we never question the violent underpinnings of the game itself. Maybe we’re too proud of the unofficial maxim of the sport we love: “He’ll be back, he’s a hockey player.”

The superficial wounds will always be the face of the game. Those they can tape, stitch and glue. Those can be worn as badges of honor. But the effects of blindside hits cannot be mopped up. They can’t be overcome through gritted teeth. And they can linger on long after the arena lights go down.

For the NHL, and maybe more importantly, for the NHL Players' Association, it’s now or never. Their heads are down, but they have to feel the rumble of the freight train coming.


Categories: Pulling No Punches