The proportion of junior hockey players who suffer concussion is far more significant than previously thought, says a groundbreaking study that has researchers calling for changes to how Canada’s national game is played at all levels.
The results of this study demonstrate an incidence of concussion significantly higher than any other study in the literature — seven times higher,” lead investigator Dr. Paul Echlin told a news conference Monday.
Echlin, a sports medicine specialist in London, Ont., said the study recorded the number of concussions sustained by members of two unnamed junior hockey teams during the 2009-2010 regular season.
Seventeen players suffered a total of 21 concussions during 52 physician-observed games — with almost one-quarter of those occurring among players involved in on-ice fights, say the researchers, whose study is published in the November issue of the journal Neurological Focus.
Echlin said that during the season, 29 per cent of players who had a concussion went on to suffer a second or recurrent concussions — brain injuries that have the potential to result in lifelong physical and cognitive deficits.
What’s more, 69 per cent of the hits that caused concussions were shots to the head, he said, noting that four out of five of those were determined to be “purposeful versus incidental.”
Players who suffered a brain-rattling concussion were not able to return to the ice for almost 13 days on average. But for one-third of players, the time until they returned to the rink after their brain injury was much longer.
“There is no such thing as a minor or mild concussion,” stressed Echlin. “When identified and treated appropriately, we believe that most individuals … who sustain a single concussion will have a complete recovery.
“Multiple concussions, especially those associated with lack of appropriate identification and treatment, may increase the individual’s risk for adverse long-term problems.”
Brad Madigan, 19, is still reeling physically and emotionally from the aftermath of what was likely multiple concussions while playing goal with the Aurora Tigers, a midget AA hockey team in his home town just north of Toronto.
He had to give up playing two years ago after being diagnosed with his only documented concussion.
Madigan, who is taking off a semester from his business program at Wilfrid Laurier University because of lingering symptoms, said he suffered that concussion at the end of the second period after being blind-sided on a rebound at the net.
In the dressing room during the intermission, the coach and trainer asked if he was OK.
“Well, of course, I’m OK,” Madigan said he responded. “I want to play, right?”
But he said he wished coaches and trainers were more aware of the risks of concussion, so someone would tell players like him that they shouldn’t go back on the ice.
At the end of last year at university, Madigan said he “crashed.”
“It’s been tough, emotional,” he said, his voice breaking. “No one really sees the dark side of it — a lot of depression, dark times, emotional, sensitive to light, sensitive to sound.”
Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports in Ottawa, described the incidence of concussion in the study “alarming and disturbing” and deemed it “a siren call to action for parents, for coaches, for hockey association executives at all levels in the system.”
But Melia said trying to eliminate or at least reduce the incidence of concussion in hockey — and indeed in all contact sports — is a social issue as much as one of health and safety for young athletes.
“And that is what makes it difficult to address head-on,” he said. “Players don’t want to appear weak or to be letting their team down. From a very young age, they’re encouraged to suck it up and play through the pain. Parents are anxious for the kids to get back on the ice. Coaches are often focused on winning ahead of athletes’ safety. The media often highlights and glorifies the gratuitous violence in the game.
“We should be making it easy for the players and the adults around them to do the right thing when it comes to concussion,” he said.
“And yet it would appear that we’ve created an environment that’s doing just the opposite.”
Olyvia Greentree of Courtice, Ont., was one of those suck-it-up players who didn’t admit she’s had head injuries because she didn’t want to let her team down. But multiple concussions sustained while playing hockey and soccer have meant she is off the ice and the field for good.
Her sports-ending concussion two years ago occurred while she was playing defence on a women’s hockey team in Quebec. She estimated she likely had six or seven concussions before that, but kept on playing.
“My last one, the one that ended it all, I somehow went down with another player and hit my head off the ice and against the goalpost,” said the 20-year-old.
Like Madigan, she is taking a semester off school — she is in third year at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec — in a bid to improve her health.
“My memory is a little bit jotted right now. A lot of my conversations are repeats, like retelling stories,” said Greentree, who has a permanent tremor in her right hand, light and sound sensitivity and migraines.
“Right now, I’ve had a headache since July.”
Her mother Anne said it’s made her sad to see her daughter’s life change so much.
“She’s been involved in sport since she was really little, very, very active. So because of having to leave sport, it’s been very challenging as a parent to see a huge chunk of her passion having to be removed and at a young age.”
Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said it’s time that leading hockey organizations — from the NHL and Hockey Canada to the networks that broadcast games and parent and player associations — stop talking about the dangers of concussion and start taking action to prevent it.
“The point is there are people being damaged here constantly, there are thousands every year in Canada, and the United States is no different, who are suffering brain injuries.
“Is that really what we want to do?”