Heads up: Concussion awareness growing in hockey
CEDAR PARK — When Greg Rallo suffered a concussion four years ago during the 2011-12 hockey season,he was effectively grounded.
Trainers and doctors told him to find a quiet place, sit still and just wait. No outside activity, no exercise, no television. Merely rest and wait for the symptoms to subside.
Well, times have changed.
This AHL season, Rallo, a veteran forward for the Texas Stars, missed nearly two months with a concussion. It was a lengthy, frustrating process that included a headache that lingered for six weeks, but instead of sitting quietly in a dark room, Rallo tackled his symptoms head-on.
“It’s very different than it was last time,” Rallo said. “That was four years ago, and the rule was to sit still. Don’t watch TV, don’t do anything, until your symptoms are gone. This time I was working on eye exercises and improving throughout (my recovery).”
Rallo was injured Jan. 29, when Lake Erie’s Jamie Sifers took out his legs after Rallo scored a goal in a 3-2 loss. Rallo slammed his head on the ice and didn’t return to the Stars’ lineup until March 23.
After suffering his first concussion in four years as a result of Sifers’ hit, Rallo started down the road to recovery by working with a chiropractic neurologist. Through simple exercises — one called for him to put his hands straight out, close his eyes and march in place — Rallo worked to improve the tracking of his eyes, his heart rate and his cognition.
“Early on, I would open my eyes and I would be facing the complete opposite direction, having no idea I had moved,” Rallo said. “They would also do this thing were they would spin me in a chair real slow, and my heart rate would go up to 170, just for a slow spin. Eventually it was worked back to where I could spin in the chair and my heart rate would stay normal, even for a fast spin.”
The exercises helped him return to the ice, said Rallo, whose club will try to even its first-round playoff series against San Diego when the teams play Saturday night at the newly renamed H-E-B Center at Cedar Park.
During the AHL regular season, Stars coach Derek Laxdal became quite accustomed to dealing with players who had concussions.
Rallo and Travis Morin each missed more than a month with concussion symptoms, and Mattias Backman missed a couple of weeks earlier in the season. And just last week, Laxdal said forward Branden Troock’s season had come to an end after he suffered a concussion in a fight against San Jose defenseman Gus Young.
“It’s all about the health of the player now,” Laxdal said. “This is a game, and it’s their job, but you have to make sure a guy has a life after hockey. It’s changed how we treat it. When I played, you could get (hit) pretty hard and no one would think about it. Today, we know it’s important to protect your brain.”
During his playing career, which stretched from 1982 to 2001, Laxdal said he hardly ever heard the word “concussion” mentioned.
“I remember during a game in junior (hockey), I got hit at center ice, had my head down and had to be taken off on a stretcher,” the coach recalled. “I spent the night in the hospital but still played two nights later. Think about that: I ran into a 6-foot-6-inch brick wall on skates with my head down and still played two days later.”
While the recognition of concussions and the treatment of them might have changed in hockey, the public transparency about head injuries in the sport remains cloudy.
The AHL doesn’t track concussions, and the league’s teams aren’t required to publicly disclose injuries. The teams that do disclose injuries often describe the ailments simply as “upper-body” or “lower-body” injuries.
While there aren’t hard numbers across the AHL, NHL officials claim the number of concussions suffered by players is declining.
According to league records, 2011 saw the largest number of concussions in NHL history. Among the players stricken was Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the game’s marquee name, who missed 15 months while recovering.
Crosby’s injury raised awareness of the concussion issue in hockey circles, and the subject remains a hot-button topic. Former NHL enforcers Bob Probert, Derek Boogard and Steve Montador all died before age 50, and autopsies found that all three were suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain found in those with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
A class action lawsuit has been filed against the NHL, with more than 100 players alleging that the league failed to protect them from the long-term effects of head trauma.
“The biggest thing is people want change, and they want to be safer and know a player will be all there when they retire,” said a former NHL player from the mid-1990s who didn’t want to be identified. “I think this is bringing (the issue) the attention it deserves, and hopefully it continues to improve.”
The NHL and AHL have worked to reduce the occurrence of concussions by slowly weeding fighting out of the sport. This season, Texas had a league-low 16 fights, and this season was just the second time since 2000 that the AHL didn’t have a team with 100 major penalties for fighting.
“The age of two donkeys going out and swinging at each other is over,” Texas Stars defenseman Brennan Evans said. “Fighting is declining. It’s still part of the game, but not what it used to be by a long shot.”
In the AHL, if a player engages in two fights during a game, he’s ejected. Approved before the 2014-15 season, the rule change has been positive for the league, said AHL President and CEO Dave Andrews.“The number of players fighting multiple times has gone down, and that’s good,” Andrews said in a phone interview. “It’s always been part of the game, but I don’t think any of our teams market fighting to sell tickets. It’s a very good product on the ice. People don’t need a fight to enjoy it.”
There also are concussion spotters in each NHL press box who watch for players who take hits to the head, and players recovering from concussions face stricter standards before being cleared to return to the ice.Add all these changes together, a number of AHL and NHL players said, and they feel more comfortable reporting concussion like symptoms to a team trainer or a doctor.
“I’m not a doctor, and I can’t say exactly what happens in each case, but across our league players are treated with the best possible care,” Andrews said. “There are a few slight modifications, just from the number of personnel we have in the league, but overall if a player has a head injury, it’s treated just as seriously, if not more (in the AHL).”
The Texas Stars follow the same concussion protocol used in the NHL. If a player suffers a significant hit to the head or reports concussion like symptoms, his symptoms are assessed. If diagnosed with a concussion, the player must complete a six-step process before returning to game action. Twenty-four hours must pass after the completion of each step in the process, so any player recovering from a concussion is sidelined for at least a week.Before resuming full-contact practice — the fifth step in the process — the injured player’s results on his latest cognitive assessment must at least equal the baseline score he recorded before training camp opened.
Shay McGlynn, head athletic trainer for the Texas Stars, said 90 percent of players dealing with concussions see them subside within two weeks. If the symptoms linger longer, players are referred to a neurologist or neuropsychologist for additional treatment. That was the case for both Rallo and Morin, who was injured against Lake Erie on Feb. 14 and didn’t return to action until March 26.
“You understand why you wait,” Rallo said. “At least now it’s a better process.”
If you have questions regarding concussion treatment and how chiropractic plays an important roll, please contact Dr. Jeff Swanson, DC, CSCS, at 512-335-0641 or online at www.cedarparkchiro.com. Dr. Swanson is the official team chiropractor for the Texas Stars Hockey Team.