Reading Ken Dryden's recent article in the Globe and Mail (Ken Dryden's Call to Action for NHL Boss Gary Bettman) got me thinking, is there actually a solution to the current concussion crisis?
So far, experts, non-experts, and wanna-be-experts have all shared their opinions on what should and could be done to curtail the incidence of head injuries and concussions in the NHL. From eliminating fighting to modifying equipment to tactical rule changes, there have been countless ideas rendered of what the league can do differently to protect their players as well as the game itself.
Unfortunately, making changes isn't easy. We all know that. Even the NHL's arm-chair executives (the fans) know that. But collectively, I believe most if not all of us can agree that something must be done.
While our knowledge base is still relatively limited with respect to the ramifications of sustained concussions, let alone early return to play from head injuries, we do know, as Mr Dryden stated, that:
"Better helmets, more muscular necks and shoulders, MRIs and Rule 48 haven't offered the answer to 220-plus-pound players moving 30 miles an hour."
220-plus pound players moving 30 miles an hour? Really?
The game of ice hockey has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, but what hasn't changed, and perhaps what has been staring at us in the face the entire time, is the size of the rink. Simple physics will tell you that an ice rink measuring 200 feet by 85 feet containing the same amount of players (let alone one extra referee) that now weigh an approximate average of 20 pounds heavier and travelling approximately 15 more miles per hour may no longer be the appropriate size.
So maybe...just maybe...we need a larger fish tank.
When our pet koi outgrow their tank, we get a larger tank. And when our children outgrow their skuuts, we get them a bike.
Now I'll admit that I do not have the epidemiological data on concussions over in Europe where they play on larger ice surfaces, but only because of the simple reason that there hasn't really been any significant studies published in recent times. Remember, studies take several years before the collected data turns into published research. And the only studies currently available are ones published the 90s. A lot has changed since then.
Surely, some will argue that the European game is completely different than the North American game. And I would agree. But I would also counter that there are many North Americans playing over in Europe, with my brother-in-law as an example. But I would also state that perhaps the difference in style of play across the ocean may actually be secondary to rink size more than any other significant reason. Perhaps?
Now others would argue that it would cost millions and millions of dollars to alter the ice rinks in each of the 30 North American cities where teams are located. Again I would agree. But I would also counter that millions and millions of dollars are equally spent on player salaries as well. And what good is the NHL when its highest paid players are sitting on the sidelines suffering from concussions?
So Gary Bettman states,
"I will go where science takes me"
As a health care practitioner, that exact statement is what I am trained to follow. But in the case of the NHL, what if the scientists are asking the wrong question? Or, maybe they are asking the right questions, but what if other specific questions aren't being asked?
Perhaps science can take us down the path that soccer (football) in Europe and other countries around the world have taken for several years and study the area covered by players during 60 minutes of regulation play. Total distance as well as peak and average speeds can be determined via global positioning systems relative to the area of play to determine whether a need for a larger ice surface is actually necessary. And sound science must utilize comparative data so perhaps the exact same study (or studies) can be performed in the KHL, DEL, Swedish Elite leagues to name a few. Simply put, I would hypothesize that players would a) cover the same total amount of ice, travelling at the same current speed, but in a less confined area or b) cover less amount of ice in total, travelling at the same current speed, AND in a less confined area. Further, I would also hypothesize that the puck would change directions with less frequency on the larger ice surface leading to more predictable play.
And should these types of studies conversely reveal that a larger ice sheet results in a greater total amount of ice covered, then perhaps this may equate to less frequency of collisions.
I know this may seem far fetched but it is an idea. One that, in my humble opinion, may have at least an ounce of sound merit to it.
A colleague directed me to this research study. Seems as though my thoughts are not too far off!