Concussions are, and will remain, a major issue
Charlie McAvoy was back from an extended stay in Palookaville for less than a week when Toronto forechecker Zach Hyman drilled him last Saturday night at the Garden with a high, blindside hit that leveled the Bruins’ talented second-year defenseman.
McAvoy, who needed some seven weeks to recover from a mid-October concussion, fortunately proved none the worse for wear. He was ordered to the dressing room by the league’s off-ice concussion spotter, and soon was back on the Boston bench, though coach Bruce Cassidy chose not to roll him out again in what turned into a chippy night — thanks in large part to the cheap, predatory hit by Hyman.
The league rightly tagged Hyman with a two-game suspension and McAvoy, 21, was back in action the next day in Ottawa. Foul, no harm, other than to Hyman’s wallet (some $24,000 lighter). The hit did not send McAvoy spinning back into the frustrating, oft-maddening spiral of concussion.
“We were hoping he would come back [and be] assertive,” said Cassidy, asked early last week if he detected any hesitation in McAvoy’s game since his return from IR. “We were hoping he’d come back and just play hockey. I think he’s been really good in that regard. Some rust the first night from not playing, bounced back from the big hit by Hyman. I think he’s recovered really well.”
Hockey is a brutal game, every second of it a potential danger, for those on the ice and even the players and coaches who line the bench during the frenetic, unpredictable action. We were reminded of that yet again in the next game at the Garden, Tuesday night, when the skate of upended Coyote defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson carved into David Backes’s face, sending the veteran Boston forward scurrying to the dressing room for medical attention. Backes was back soon, the wound sutured, fortunate that he had not been clipped in an eye or across an artery.
The game here Saturday with Buffalo was No. 142 for Cassidy behind the Boston bench. Over that time, less than two seasons, he has seen at least seven players exit the lineup due to concussion — assuming that Jake DeBrusk, skulled by a shot Nov. 26 in Toronto, is the latest on the concussed bus. “That seems a little low, to be honest with you,” said Cassidy, mulling the numbers.
The list, just in Cassidy’s tenure, includes Ryan Spooner, Rick Nash, Tuukka Rask, Backes (twice), Urho Vaakanainen, McAvoy, and now DeBrusk. It cuts across ages, positions, heights and weight, experience and wages. Brain injuries don’t discriminate among their victims. They can be the products of a running elbow to the head, a pile-drive into the boards, or something as routine as a drive-by smack. McAvoy, who reported feeling rotten after the club’s Oct. 18 game in Edmonton, had yet to figure what rattled his head.
DeBrusk, 22, exited the lineup last weekend, some two weeks after he was skulled by friendly fire in Toronto by teammate Danton Heinen. Just as Heinen snapped off his shot near the top of the left circle, DeBrusk was upended in a battle at the net. The fallen DeBrusk was facing the Toronto goal, his head about a foot off the ice, when the puck off Heinen’s stick nailed him on the back of the helmet, at the base of the skull.
Unlike McAvoy’s case, the off-ice concussion spotter did not order DeBrusk to the room. He looked dazed initially, missed a shift, but ultimately took a few turns before the third period ended.
“That’s NHL driven, we have no say in that,” noted Cassidy, when asked about the spotter not prompting action in Toronto.
“If he goes off, we can’t contest it. But our medical guys will say, ‘Hey, Jake, we gotta talk here, how do you feel?’ And I assume the player will respond, ‘It stung a little, I’m fine.’ Or it’ll be, ‘I’m goofy’, or whatever it is, and you go on from there. So with Jake it probably stung a little and maybe . . . I don’t know his history, but maybe he’s never really had a concussion, so he thought well, ‘OK, you’re supposed to be sore if you take a puck in the head.’ And maybe it snowballed from there and he realized, ‘This isn’t right.’ I assume that’s what happened with Jake.”
Cloudy. No tidy answers. Such is so often the case with concussions. Among the myriad forces that keep an injured player in the lineup: the player’s drive to keep playing, particularly in a sport backed by an ethos of courage and not wanting to let down teammates, as well as coaches who don’t want to short their bench.
“I don’t want to speak out of turn,” noted Cassidy. “If the diagnosis right away is concussion, then you are into the protocol and you can’t get out of it.”
League protocol calls for players with confirmed concussions to remain out of action for at least a week.
“So sometimes for me, it’s just like, ‘Can we just wait and see if it’s not just a headache or a neck, or something like that?’ ” continued Cassidy. “And that’s from a coach’s perspective. I don’t want to lose a player that long. Listen, I always believe in safety first as well. If the player feels he’s not right, then you have to trust his decision that he’s not right.”
What’s wrong, beyond a doubt, are unnecessary hits such as the one Hyman dropped on McAvoy. Perpetrator No. 1 in this category, of course, is Washington winger Tom Wilson, the game’s premier headhunter at the moment. Wilson’s the flavor of the day, a bitter one, but there will be more. Sadly. There is always another predator on the prowl. To the league’s credit, though it took plenty of cajoling by way of media attention on the subject, it now does a much better job of penalizing the likes of Wilson, et al. The Department of Player Safety acts quickly and metes out supplemental discipline, stepping the suspensions higher for repeat offenders.
But the real, most effective change here must come from the players themselves, led by the Players’ Association. The players have it in their power to direct the PA not to plead the case of the offenders. Wilson recently saw his 20-game suspension for a head smack trimmed back to 14, supported all along the way in the appeal process by the union.
It’s fair. The appeal is a player’s right as defined by the CBA. But it’s nonsense. Vicious, predatory hits to the head are inexcusable, and always have been, but particularly so now in an era when we continually learn more about brain injuries and the connection between concussive and subconcussive hits and how they act as the oxygen that feeds the fire of CTE.
The concussions will never stop, not in a game played at this pace, on a rock-hard surface ringed by an immovable wall. But they can be reduced, by players refusing to prey on those in vulnerable positions, and telling the PA it’s time to quit supporting the guilty. Until they get to that point, they’re beating themselves over the head with their own CBA.
‘Last Game’ about global awareness
If you liked “Mystery Alaska”, the bet here is that you’ll go head over halfwall for the “Last Game.”
Blessed by Pope Francis, his holiness also selected as an honorary captain, the “Last Game” will be played April 24 on an ice floe approximately 50 miles from the geographical North Pole. The brainchild of the IIHF, UN Environment, National Geographic and others, the hockey game will be staged as an attempt to heighten the awareness of global warming.
“A topic that is crucial to our planet,” says Slava Fetisov, the iconic Russian defenseman, who these days, among his titles, is UN Environment Patron for Polar Regions.
Ex-NHL great Jari Kurri, on the Oilers roster when they beat the Bruins in the 1988 and 1990 Cup finals, will suit up, along with Fetisov. The game’s organizers want players from different sports, as well as politicians, musicans and actors, in order to increase the global audience.
Because of the fragility of the polar environment, no spectators will be allowed. When the entrance sign says “Players Only,” it means players only. As for passengers, well, that’s always for the coaches to determine in the postgame scrum.
Among those also expected to suit up: the Prince of Monaco, Leonardo DiCaprio, ex-Ranger goalie Mike Richter, and decorated Norway speedskater Johann Olav Koss.
The ice surface will be sited on the Russian-controlled Barneo Ice Camp, which opened in 2002 and operates only the month of April each year. Scientists calculate the supporting ice floe drifts at a rate of roughly half-a-mile per hour— or roughly the speed of a Jamie Huscroft slapper.
All kidding aside — and such abstinence kills me, folks — it strikes your faithful puck chronicler as a noble and vital effort. Climatologists believe the Arctic and Antarctic are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The polar caps act as the world’s air conditioning units. If they continue to melt, temps will rise, along with sea levels. The game, said Fetisov, is “a symbol of concern . . . to work together to save the world.”
Based on warming trends, the game’s organizers are touting it as “the last hockey game at the North Pole.” It also will be the first. For the optimists in the crowd, maybe a rematch will be possible one day.
Rask, Krejci up for grabs in 2021
The Seattle Whatchamacallits, officially added as the NHL’s 32nd franchise for the 2021-22 season, will shape much of their first-year roster in the June 2021 expansion draft.
Less than 10 days later, the new franchise will be free to bid for unrestricted free agents — a market that right now stands to include core Bruin roster players Tuukka Rask and David Krejci. Rask, still the club’s franchise goaltender (alert talk radio), will be 34 — not all that old by goalie standards — when the bidding begins July 1, 2021. Krejci will be 35. Provided another lockout doesn’t erase another season, they will have averaged 13 NHL seasons apiece, Krejci going to market with an expiring cap number of $7.25M and Rask at $7M.
Of course, the Bruins front office could extend the contracts of one or both veterans prior to the ’21 expiration date. All 31 current NHL clubs will spend these next 30 months scrutinizing rosters, tailoring contract expiration dates, preparing the best they can for a draft in which they will be obligated to provide Seattle with the same bona fide player stock that was available to Vegas in June 2017.
Place your bets, Seattle, it looks like Alexander Ovechkin could be available. A look at some of the top talent across the league, with current teams and cap numbers, that today stands to enter the UFA pool as of July 1, 2021 (age as of that date):
David Backes (Boston, $6M, age 37); Nick Bjugstad (Florida, $4.1M, 28); Tyler Bozak (St. Louis, $5M, 35); Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus $5.85M, 35; Nick Foligno (Columbus; $5.5M 33); Brendan Gallagher (Montreal $3.75M, 29); Ryan Getzlaf, (Anaheim $8.25M, 36; David Krejci (Boston, $7.25M 35); Ilya Kovalchuk (Los Angeles $6.25M 38); Gabe Landeskog, (Colorado, $5.5M, 28); Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton, $6M, 28); Alex Ovechkin (Washington, $9.35M, 35); Brandon Saad (Chicago, $6M, 28); Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis, $5.35M 29); Paul Statsny (Vegas, $6.5M, 35); Alex Steen, St. Louis, $5.75M, 37); Derek Stepan (Arizona, $6.5M, 31); Travis Zajac (New Jersey, $5.75M 36).
Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg, $7.6M, 36); Alex Goligoski (Arizona, $5.48M, 35); Erik Gudbranson (Vancouver, $4M 29); Dougie Hamilton (Carolina, $5.75M, 28); Niklas Hjalmarsson (Arizona, $5M 34); Adam Larsson (Edmonton, $4.2M, 28); Alec Martinez (Los Angeles, $4M, 33); Matt Niskanen (Washington, $5.75M, 34); Jeff Petry (Montreal, $5.5M, 33); Kevin Shattenkirk (NY Rangers, $6.65M, 32); Marc Staal (NY Rangers, $5.7M, 34).
Carter Hutton (Buffalo, $2.75M, 35); Jake Allen (St. Louis, $4.35M, 30); Frederik Andersen (Toronto $5M 31); Jonathan Bernier (Detroit, $3M, 32); Devan Dubnyk, (Minnesota, $4.33M, 35); Philipp Grubauer (Colorado, $3.33M, 29); Henrik Lundqvist (NY Rangers, $8.5M, 39); Antti Raanta, Arizona $4.25M 31; Tuukka Rask (Boston, $7M, 34); James Reimer (Florida, $3.4M, 33); Pekka Rinne (Nashville, $5M, 38).
Still lots of time left on the clock, but Vancouver freshman Elias Pettersson increasingly looks like the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year. He put up a 2-6—8 line over three games prior to being named No, 1 Star of the Week last Monday, followed by Tampa goalie Louis Domingue and ex-BC standout Johnny Gaudreau (2-6—8 over four games with the Flames). The 20-year-old Swedish center, picked fifth in the 2017 draft, stood 16-16—32, T30 in league scoring, as the weekend approached . . . Ovechkin, with 25 goals in his first 30 games, appears a deadcertainty to reach the 50-goal level again for the first time since 2015-16. “He can shoot it through a brick wall,” said Bruins defenseman John Moore. Closing in on 1,200 career points, Ovie could eclipse the career-high 65 goals he posted in his third NHL season at age 22 . . . One reason Don Sweeney might have been in Edmonton last week for the Oiler-Flames matchup: Calgary is believed to be in the market to move a defenseman. The Flames are jammed against the cap (less than $1 million in wiggle room) and might need to move for scoring help in February if they believe they’re in the hunt. Ex-Bruin Austin Czarnik, hired in July as a free agent, hasn’t added much punch (2-3—5 in 19 games) . . . Raanta will have an extended stay on the IR, leaving the Arizona net to a collection of ex-WHL tenders: Darcy Kuemper (Red Deer), Adin Hill (Portland) and ex-Flyer Calvin Pickard (Seattle). Former Harvard tender Merrick Madsen, originally a Flyer pick, remains in the Coyote system with AHL Tucson. He is sharing the work there with ex- UM-Duluth tender Hunter Miska . . . The Bruins will make their one visit to Nassau Coliseum this season on March 19. In the days when clubs hired retired newspapermen in PR and glad-handing roles, Barney Kremenko, ex-of the New York Journal-American, worked for the Isles as a press box steward. Kremenko, in thick Brooklyn accent, one night in the 1980s counseled a disconsolate NY Times rookie reporter over pedantic copy editing: “Kid, haven’t you learned? This is how you survive: write it, write it, and fuhget it.” In his baseball beat days, Kremenko nicknamed Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid”. Who could fuhget it?