February 25, 2010

Concussion's impact

RACHEL LENZI

— By

David Booth
click image to enlarge

David Booth

ASSOCIATED PRESS

20081216_FelixSchutz
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20081216_FelixSchutz

Gordon Chibroski

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Portland Pirates center Felix Schutz's first concern was not his head. After he fought Hershey center Gavin Morgan during a game in November, Schutz felt pain in his shoulder and was examined by team doctors to make sure there was no trauma.

But during the fight, Schutz also had taken a hard punch to the jaw. It wasn't until nearly 48 hours later he noticed unusual symptoms when he returned to the ice.

He had a throbbing headache and dizziness. Something wasn't right for a 22-year-old who, as a professional hockey player, considered himself not only healthy but in the best shape of his life.

The Pirates' medical staff re-examined Schutz and made the diagnosis: He had suffered a concussion and would miss seven games because of the brain injury.

''I'd never had a concussion before so it was kind of a new experience for me,'' Schutz said. ''You're not allowed to do anything, not even watching TV or being on a laptop (computer).''

To a certain degree, Schutz's story is a cautionary tale and an educational tool. Concussion awareness recently has heightened in professional sports, especially in the NHL and NFL. The NHL has seen careers of several stars end prematurely because of concussions and their lingering symptoms: Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Pat LaFontaine, among others. Florida Panthers left wing David Booth recently began skating again more than two months after he suffered a concussion when he was checked by Philadelphia's Mike Richards. Earlier this month, the Manitoba Moose of the AHL announced defenseman Michael Funk would miss the rest of the season after he suffered his fourth concussion in 14 months.

The NHL has established a concussion protocol that prevents a player from playing again until he is free of symptoms and passes a series of neuropsychological and physical tests, better known as baseline testing.

LACK OF CONSISTENT GUIDELINES

But the AHL has no set guidelines regarding concussion awareness, prevention and treatment. Instead, AHL President Dave Andrews said the onus of determining, treating and monitoring a concussion, as well as educating players on concussions, rests with each of the league's 30 teams.

''Most team physicians follow pretty similar guidelines in regards to concussions and when a player can return to play,'' Andrews said. ''We encourage proper wearing of helmets and the proper fastening of the helmet, but the medical support side of the business belongs to the teams. Each team has a physician who would make a decision in regards to a player who has suffered a concussion.''

It's a guideline with which Pirates Coach Kevin Dineen agrees.

''Every team in the AHL is associated with an NHL team, and each NHL team has a protocol for concussions,'' Dineen said. ''Each AHL team follows it.

''We are employees of the (Buffalo) Sabres, the coaches are employees, the players are employees, and their medical issues are evaluated at the NHL level.

Dineen added it would be repetitive to have a separate protocol at the minor league level.

Concussion awareness, Andrews said, has grown in recent years.

''We've seen significant injuries in the National Hockey League over the past two years, serious injuries caused by blows to the head,'' Andrews said. ''Some of those cause a player to lose half a season and some end careers, and that brings serious awareness. I can't think of a significant incident that would cause (more awareness).

''We've always been aware of (concussions), but now it's coming to the forefront. What are the mechanisms of the injury, how we can prevent it and how we can ensure player safety?

''It's a significant issue and it should be a significant issue. This impacts a player's ability to carry on in hockey and carry on a normal life after hockey.''

The AHL does not keep track of concussion data but it keeps records of facial and head injuries to players, a process that began after the league issued a mandatory facial protection rule in 2006. Citing player privacy issues, Andrews did not disclose those numbers.

STATISTICS TELL A STORY

However, several studies have collected data from the NHL regarding the impact of concussions. In 2007, the Toronto Star found that at least 30 former NHL players had their careers ended by concussions, a study that dated back to 1996.

In 2007, the Orange County (Calif.) Register found that NHL players are five times more likely to suffer a concussion than NFL players. And in a story titled ''National Headache League'' in its Jan. 11 issue, ESPN The Magazine found that from 1997-98 to 2003-04, prior to the lockout in 2004-05, the number of games lost each year to concussions soared from 619 to 1,029.

Last September, NHL Hall of Famer Mark Messier introduced the Messier Project, an initiative to heighten awareness and promote education about concussions, smart play and protective equipment.

''I think one of the reasons there's more awareness is because the medical field is better at diagnosing concussions, which is fantastic,'' said Mary-Kay Messier, Mark's sister, and an executive at the Messier Project. ''We have more tools at our disposal like ImPACT testing, and there's a measurement to determine whether or not a player has had a concussion.

''We've seen an alarming increase in this in the NHL,'' she said. ''There's a growing concern about it, and that concern has fueled more discussion.''

Schutz came to North America from Germany when he was 17. He said there's a significant difference between European and North American hockey, both in the style of play and in concussion awareness.

''There's not as much hitting (in Europe) as here,'' Schutz said. ''But they don't talk about concussions at all. There's barely any concussions, ever. There's no fighting and they don't hit a lot.

''There, if you have a concussion you wait a couple days and you don't get worried about it. Here, if you get a concussion it's serious stuff.''

CONCUSSIONS DEMAND ATTENTION

Dineen can attest to the effects of a concussion. When he played for the Hartford Whalers, he took a slap shot to the head and its impact was so severe, it broke his helmet. He received stitches, then went out that night with teammates, not realizing the possible severity of a concussion he sustained.

''My teammate announced his engagement and all I remember thinking is that I wanted to leave,'' Dineen said. ''And that's the last thing I remembered for two days. I had no recollection of anything that had happened over those two days, even though I went to practice both days.

''I got my bell rung, and back then, that would be the terminology for it.''

Nowadays, the same injury Dineen suffered during his career is one he immediately turns over to the Pirates' medical staff.

''When a player gets a concussion, my No. 1 concern is that it's a brain injury,'' Dineen said. ''If you ask me after 19 years of playing in the NHL about a shoulder injury, I could tell you what kind it is, what the rehab time is, and I can tell you how those progress.

''But when it gets into a concussion area, it's 'Let's get you to the doctor and let's get you evaluated at that level.'''

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

rlenzi@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

20081216_FelixSchutz
click image to enlarge

20081216_FelixSchutz

Gordon Chibroski

David Booth
click image to enlarge

David Booth

ASSOCIATED PRESS

David Booth
click image to enlarge

David Booth

ASSOCIATED PRESS

20081216_FelixSchutz
click image to enlarge

20081216_FelixSchutz

Gordon Chibroski

20081216_FelixSchutz
click image to enlarge

20081216_FelixSchutz

Gordon Chibroski

David Booth
click image to enlarge

David Booth

ASSOCIATED PRESS



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