01/10/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Shaken Heads and Heads In the Sand

I'm really not a big fan of professional hockey. Short of catching the odd period of Leafs hockey, because I'm partnered with a lifelong (i.e. diehard and delusional) Leafs fan, I tend only to pay intermittent attention to the bits of news that trickle through the sports media.

I do, however, love watching Olympic hockey. I confess too, that my heart was aflutter even last weekend as the Canadian juniors made an epic, albeit unsuccessful, comeback seem possible during the third period of the semi-final game against Russia. That was exciting.

And like most people who tuned in to watch Sidney Crosby make his spectacular return to the ice a couple of months ago, I felt relieved, and happy, that he seemed to be back to his old self, scoring goals with ease, getting in the mix, and generally being awesome. It seemed as though, for a moment or two anyway, that his triumphant return instantly made everything better, as if somehow concussions were no longer the pink elephant in the room, that perhaps the great Canadian game wasn't broken after all.

Unfortunately, just a short time later, that fragile veneer seems to have shattered into a million tiny pieces. Night after night, star player after star player, hit after hit, grown men, giants, heroes, the invincible ones, are reduced to mere shadows of their former selves. And Crosby, out again indefinitely. His future in hockey, and in life, remains a disquieting mystery to us, and most frustratingly, to him. And for what, exactly? Love of the game? Glory? Honour? Profit?

All of this leaves me feeling rather conflicted about this country's passion for hockey. Over the Christmas holidays I went to my first ever Leafs game. Surprisingly, they won. I cheered when they scored and truly enjoyed the entertaining ruckus of it all. But the highlight video at the beginning of the game showed only hits and fights, much to the delight of the rabid fans. And when the crowd leapt to their feet in barbaric anticipation of an impending fight I felt sick to my stomach -- and it wasn't because of the sausage on a bun I got on the street before the game.


I'm a little confused, but not at all fooled, by what is meant by the term 'concussion-like' symptoms. In the absence of actually hitting your head, what else is there that can give you 'concussion-like' symptoms? Perhaps there is another ailment or accident that can lead to random, sudden loss of consciousness, short-term memory loss, feeling dizzy, nauseous, and confused, an inability to withstand loud noise or bright light and ongoing severe headaches that we, and medical doctors, are not yet aware of. That seems plausible.

Lately, both media and pro-teams alike have taken to frequently using the term 'concussion-like' symptoms to describe how an injured athlete is faring. While I'm not a doctor or expert in this area I'm pretty certain that 'concussion-like' symptoms are actual concussion symptoms. Regardless of how teams or athletes like to spell it out for the media, when you hit your head and feel lousy you have a concussion.

Are we meant to feel less concerned because the real truth is being masked by a more palatable (read: marketable) expression? Is it for our sake that official concussion diagnoses are spared, so as to limit the damage to our collective psyche -- that of concerned but emotionally removed fans -- lest we stop buying tickets? Or maybe it is for the sake of the player's ego, future viability, and likelihood of signing a new lucrative contract, that he not be branded as 'concussion prone'.

Regardless of whether symptoms stem from something 'like' a concussion or are from an actual concussion and whether or not they are severe or mild is, at this point, moot, in my humble opinion. That long and growing list of athletes, particularly hockey players, is not characterized by anything other than the fact that its occupants have suffered permanent, and in some cases repeated, life-altering brain damage and are facing an uncertain future in the wake of a concussion epidemic the likes of which the NHL has never acknowledged before.

Much like a deer, frozen in space and time at the blinding sight of oncoming headlights, the NHL seems paralyzed and incapable of taking any meaningful or measurable action on this issue, even as the nightly exodus of injured players continues and the list of players with 'concussion-like' symptoms expands endlessly.

There is little to be gained from denial except, I suppose, money. But sadly, there is so much to be lost. From the outside, as a casual but concerned observer, it appears to me that the NHL is content to remain frozen, inactive and mum on the issue. When Gary Bettman publicly denounced the overwhelming scientific evidence that concussions can cause permanent brain damage the response should have been one of outrage. Instead it was mentioned in passing, almost casually, during the nightly highlights, in much the same way the latest players to be sidelined by a concussion are nonchalantly announced. It's hardly news anymore, after all.

Stories of players purposely denying or hiding symptoms, lax suspensions for devastating hits to the head and denial by coaches, players, pundits, and commentators alike, speak volumes to the depth, breadth and scope of the problem. Oh wait; it's not a problem right? And yet the lack of respect that players have for one another, and the positive reinforcement they receive from those who employ them, indicates to me an appalling systematic failure to uphold the values of sport we all claim to hold so dear.

The NHL can keep their heads in the sand as long as they like -- who am I to tell them what to do? Meanwhile, their stars, their raison d'etre, are losing their futures, and in some cases, their lives. The rest of us, stalwart fans and bandwagon jumpers alike, are beginning to tune out. So too are the kids who were once the future heroes of the great game.