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NHL Concussion Protocol is Necessarily Cautious, But Lacks Consistency and Clarity

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If Connor McDavid is going to be taken off the ice for a light fall, then let’s make sure everyone is treated with the same care and caution

USA TODAY Sports Archive Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

My favourite clip of Connor McDavid is not his spectacular first goal back from injury, or any of a myriad of highlight reel plays he's made over the years. My favourite Connor McDavid moment is this 35-second video of him after his Erie Otters lost in the playoffs, letting out a fat, fluffy expletive that was spectacularly angry and different from his usual mature, precociously old man-like demeanour. I watch it whenever I am angry and it makes me feel instantly better.

It's somewhat amusing to know that under the placid surface is a boiling cauldron of lava, and it spilled over just a bit in his post-game comments after Sunday's game against the Wild, during which he was pulled from the game after falling on his mouth towards the end of the second period. He missed just over six minutes of the game for the 20 minute testing process, which meant he was not part of a critical 5-on-3 and powerplay during a close 1-1 game. The reason that clip of McDavid is awesome is because he never swears on camera, so when he does, you know he is absolutely fuming. Here's what he had to say about being pulled out of the game in his post-game interview:

"I was pretty shocked to be honest," McDavid said. "I hit my mouth on the ice. You reach up and grab your mouth when you get hit in the mouth; it’s a pretty normal thing. Obviously, the spotter thought he knew how I was feeling and he pulled me off.

"Sh***y time in the game, too, I guess. It’s a little bit of a partial five-on-three and a power play late in the second period where if you capitalize, it could change the game.

"It kind of sucks because that’s the rule. You go down, you hit your head, you reach up and that’s the rule. They take you off the ice.

The saltiness and sass are plentiful in those sentences, and obviously the kid captain was none too pleased about having to leave a close game at a crucial time for something he evidently didn't feel was serious at all. I actually don't have a big problem with the NHL spotters pulling Connor McDavid out of the game. Was it an overreaction to a minor fall? Perhaps, but I'm sure we can all agree it would be an incredibly dark time for everyone if he were actually concussed, then got hit again in the same game. We went through the horrors of losing him last season, and just thinking about it makes me want to splay out and cry.

The fact that Connor was visibly frustrated, both during and after the game, shows why we need spotters to make judgments on whether a player should be allowed to continue in a match. As that 35-second clip and Connor’s post-game comments show, this is a young man so fiercely competitive he probably makes mundane things like peeling boiled eggs a competition. What is going through 19-year old Connor McDavid’s mind as he is being sent off the ice in a close game? He wants the to be on the ice, puck on his stick, shooting one-timers making generous passes to his teammates so the team he captains can get ahead in the game. As a fiercely competitive teenage hockey player, that’s the only thing he cares about, not how potential head injuries will affect his quality of life when he’s a 54 years old.

Patty Maroon’s post-game comments (this part conveniently edited out of the videos posted on the NHL site) only reinforced the need for a neutral party to monitor potential head injuries and decide whether to conduct testing—

"This is a man’s game. People are going to get hit, get high-sticked. They’re going to go through the middle and get hit. That’s part of hockey, and that’s why we have all this gear that protects us."

Patty Maroon is one of my favourite players, and I love the way his hair flops in a different direction during seemingly every interview he does. But I wish he hadn’t said those things.

Bro, I get it— you’re a real man. Good for you. But if what you’re saying is the general belief of the guys on the team and in the league, I can’t imagine the thought process of a teammate who got hit hard in a close game and is feeling a bit dizzy. How difficult would it be to take yourself out of the game, knowing your teammate(s) is probably judging you for being soft and weak? Not everyone has the awarenes, or more importantly, selfishness to do what’s right for their own health in that situation. I’m sure the 19-year old captain in his first season as a leader would find it rather difficult to do so, even after a much more severe hit.

The other issue this incident brought up is that of consistency. Connor certainly did not feel this way, but as an Oilers fan, I felt borderline blessed that the NHL cared enough to exercise this degree of caution for a player on my team— it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case for all players.

The concept of the updated Concussion Protocol itself is great, but it's the ambiguity and inconsistency with which it is enforced that is frustrating. My minor gripe is not why Connor McDavid was removed from the game, but why other players who fell or were hit in ways that seemed much more serious were not removed for testing and accorded similar diligence. The concussion protocol has not been enacted in many other situations that seemed much more serious than McDavid's fall Sunday night, making it seem like the league is placing a premium on the safety of certain players who are more visible and marketable than others.

Many fans heartily welcomed the NHL's Concussion Protocol after repeated calls for increased vigilance on head injuries that lead to stories like Stephen Peat’s and Dale Purinton’s-- the fact that the NHL has gotten to the point where awareness of head injuries allows them to take players out of games to be checked on is a good thing. Whether it's the league minimizing its own liability, improving the image of the game, or most importantly, protecting the health of these human beings, the benefits are obvious.

But as hockey fans, we want to see all players being protected by this rule. Coach McLellan pointed out a recent example that comes to mind, in Saturday night's game against the Ducks, when Ryan Kesler's head was bumped into by Milan Lucic, who is pretty much a Serbian-Canadian hulk. Kesler lingered on the ice for a prolonged period of time after the impact, crouched down with his head buried and visibly shaken up. In this instance, there was clear impact to the head, and a much more pronounced reaction, so much that (perhaps motivated by my lingering hatred of Kesler) I even wondered whether he was faking it.

"I don't write the rules," said McLellan after the game on Sunday. "We abide by them. And it's compounded when you have a 5-on-3 and you lose arguably one of the best players in the world. For me, I understand and I get and I support the attention that's being paid to head injuries. Sometimes it's the inconsistency that's a little bit frustrating; Ryan Kesler went down the other day, and he went down pretty hard, and no one wants to see that, even with an opponent. But there wasn't a call from anywhere."

I remember many instances when a player was hit hard, and fans of both teams were commenting real-time asking why the spotter didn't take this player out to be checked on. How about Kris Russell's blistering hit on Tyler Motte? If Connor McDavid was removed from the game for falling on his mouth, then surely Tyler Motte being sent flying on his back should warrant some evaluation, as well, since he also put his hand to his face immediately after.

In McDavid's case, he got up immediately after his mouth hit the ice, with little wincing or hesitation, and his undoing seems to have been when he touched his mouth with his hand, as most human beings would do upon such a fall, likely to check for blood after a hooking call. This is apparently one of the "visible signs" the spotters use as an indication of a potential concussion— if so, then how come Motte was allowed to play on, but McDavid wasn’t?

The decision to pull McDavid may have been an overreaction, but that's a prevention mindset most should be okay with, and not as concerning as the fact that the likes of Kesler (who’s certainly no scrub, but also not McDavid) and Motte were left to continue the game despite showing more visible signs of impact. If McDavid sustained the impact to the head Kesler did in the game against the Oilers, I’m willing to bet my first edition Charizard card that the spotter would have taken him out. If the NHL is going to exercise extreme caution, like it did with McDavid, then they should do this with all players. If the NHL is going to only take players off in more extreme cases, like Nazem Kadri’s hit on Daniel Sedin, then this should be the precedent across the league.

The evaluation criteria for whether to usher a player off should never rest on how much the league wants to protect that particular individual. I'm wondering what would have happened if it was Zack Kassian or Patty Maroon whose fell in the way McDavid did last night. If it does happen in the future, they'd better be taken out of the game, as well, because as human beings they deserve the same amount of protection and caution as a "star player." The heart-wrenching stories of destructive post-hockey lives we read are usually not about star players-- they are nameless fourth line grinders whose pain does not see the day of light unless a journalist chooses to document it, whose tattered lives were not deemed important by League they gave their physical and mental wellbeing to, and are left to pick up the pieces alone. I hope these players are as protected by the NHL Concussion Protocol as Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are.

The League is free to take McDavid out of the game in a crucial time for a seemingly innocuous fall, as much as it may irk the team and fans— McDavid and Maroon’s post-game comments only emphasize how important it is to have a third party spotter making these decisions, and not the players themselves. But please try to do the same for all players. Of course consistency cannot be 100%, and it's impossible to disregard the fact that Connor McDavid is Connor McDavid. The protocol still being fairly new, this incident is going to open up what I hope is a healthy debate on how to more be clear and consistent in determining when to pull players off— a conscious effort to define the criteria in more detail and apply them equally to different players will go a long way in improving its effectiveness and reducing the resistance from coaches and players. Health should not be contingent on fame or skill-- it's good to see the NHL being so cautious with our captain, and I hope they extend the same care and vigilance to all players in the league.