DeCock

DeCock: What to do about 'heady' issue?

Staff WriterDecember 15, 2011 

— Jeff Skinner wasn't on the ice when a small group of Carolina Hurricanes practiced Wednesday afternoon at the RBC Center. He wasn't anywhere near the arena. He was off meeting with doctors, who confirmed what just about everyone has suspected since Andy Sutton leveled him a week ago: Skinner has a concussion.

Skinner, who leads the Hurricanes in scoring, is the latest in a long line of NHL stars to be sidelined with a concussion, a diagnosis the Hurricanes confirmed Wednesday. Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL, missed almost a full season with a concussion and is back on the shelf after suffering a relapse. Claude Giroux, the league's leading scorer, is out with a concussion. Milan Michalek, the league's leading goal-scorer, has one, too.

Skinner, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, and teammate Joni Pitkanen are both out indefinitely, the team announced Wednesday. Jay Harrison has also missed time with what turned out to be a concussion; he practiced Wednesday and could return to action this weekend.

For the Hurricanes and the rest of the NHL, the game of hockey is looking more dangerous than ever, and you can throw in the excellent reporting by The New York Times last week on the death of enforcer Derrick Boogaard, whose on-ice pugilism was the likely source of brain damage discovered during his autopsy. If it isn't brain-rattling hits ending careers and changing lives, it's the absurd anachronism of officially sanctioned bare-knuckle brawling.

The NHL has finally acknowledged that it has a problem, that the speed and ferocity of the game is putting players' brains in danger. The question now is what to do about it. Putting in rules to penalize players for targeting the head and stiffer suspensions for miscreants hasn't done enough, not yet, and there was nothing to penalize about the hit that hurt Skinner anyway.

It was a clean hit by Sutton at the end of the Edmonton Oilers defenseman's reign of terror last Wednesday. Sutton tried to amputate Eric Staal's right leg at the knee and flatten Alexei Ponikarovsky's head against the glass, the latter earning him an eight-game suspension. Staal and Ponikarovsky were lucky not to be injured. Skinner wasn't so fortunate when Sutton caught him with his head down.

Meanwhile, down on the farm, last summer's first-round draft pick, Ryan Murphy, is back on the ice after missing a month recovering from a nasty concussion he suffered in November - what he later admitted was the latest in a series of otherwise "minor" concussions. Except that a "minor" concussion is like a "minor" pregnancy: There are potential future repercussions regardless.

Murphy was cut from Canada's team for the World Junior Championships on Wednesday, the time missed with the concussion apparently playing a role in that decision. As a first-round pick, he's an important figure in the Hurricanes' future; his concussion issues will now hang over the rest of his career.

If there's a positive in this, it's that players and teams are being more open about concussions and their consequences, even if it took the Hurricanes some time to admit all three players suffered concussions. Officially, Skinner had "flu-like symptoms" and Pitkanen and Harrison had "upper body" injuries before the team finally came clean Wednesday.

That's happening throughout the hockey world, as the extensive damage even seemingly minor brain injuries can do becomes clear to everyone. With Skinner and Pitkanen, acknowledging the problem is the first step. Now, all they can do is wait for them to get better.

luke.decock@newsobserver .com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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