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Traumatic Brain Injuries, the Smoldering Issue Within Hockey

Jane Rickard

I'm nuts just ask anybody.

Yes. it has happened again, another family is sitting vigil in a hospital room with an injured athlete fighting for his life and future. Kirchner Ranger Ben Fenelli was injured in an on ice boarding incident which caused his helmet to fly off upon contact with the glass. Again it calls attention to a smoldering fire within hockey that of helmets, concussions, head injuries and safety equipment. The young men and women that play this sport of fire and ice pay a high price for its power and speed that we all know and love.

Although for much of my day I look at the world through a Canon lens, I also have another another working life that of a public health nurse. This gives me a perspective many other photographers do not have. It has also given me a great interest in a serious issue facing hockey, post Traumatic Brain Injuries. Hockey in general has been slow to address this issue due to what most would call the macho culture of the sport. I can remember well as a student at RIT watching club hockey games how the teams would fight for the "right" not to wear helmets in 1978. Times have changed and although we see collegiate players now wearing full cages and the NHL wearing face shields concussions are still commonplace among players.

Two years ago I spoke with UHL veteran Brendan Tedstone regarding his mouthpiece. He proudly described it as a "guaranteed no concussion" piece of safety equipment. That lead me on a trail of looking into just what do these guys put into their mouths, most use nothing at all. Some a model at $1.98 seen flopping in and out of their mouths and a few a more elaborate model. The problem with the "no concussion" design Mr. Tedstone liked and some NHL players use is that is is difficult to breathe through. If it interferes with performance you are not going to get most players to use it regularly

A few months after talking to Tedstone, I was in Traverse City at the Red Wing Rookie Tournament. One of the most impressive features of the tournament is the support staff. Out of sight of the public is a legion of dentists, orthopedists and other specialists ready to care for injured athletes on a moments notice. Often I will meet these professionals as I photograph the NHL hopefuls along the glass. Once the doctors find out the redhead with the big lens is also an RN they are often willing to talk regarding medical issues players face. One day I was discussing mouth guards with an orthopedist and two players boomed into the glass inches from us. He then pointed to the smeared class with fire in his eyes and told me ( and I para phrase) "It's not mouth pieces, that helmet gave him no protection, find a chin strap that will stay on and that's the first step." Every time as I photograph players by the glass looking at those helmets with their loose chinstraps I think of that passionate orthopedist. The main argument as I understand it against chin straps that will stay on is that in a fight is to hit a player with a helmet on is a virtual guarantee of a hand injury. Either a soft tissue injury requiring stitches or a fracture. I can understand that logic, however are there not more players involved in collisions, checks and other kinds of contacts that require head protection than are involved in on ice fights? Honestly, except for the "enforcers" the skilled players who job it has always been to protect the little guys pretty much not many other guys roll up their sleeves. It's time to refit chinstraps on the majority of players who face the greater danger of loosing helmet protection as they are pushed against the glass during normal contact.

To give a visual of just what a loose chin strap means to a player during contact with glass or boards please look to the following images of Black Hawk prospect Jack Skille that were captured last season in Rockford. Please note Skille's helmet with it's chinstrap in the usual "two fingers between strap and chin" a standard position appearing to do little to protect his head as he falls against the boards.


After making contact with Brian Sipotz and second player of the Chicago Wolves Jack Skille twists around and heads toward the boards head and shoulder first.


As Skille's head makes contact with the boards his helmet starts to slide up with it's loose chin strap, offering little protection to his head and and face.


As Skillie slides toward the ice there is no protection for head or face, he will miss several games to a concussion .

Hockey is old sport, there was a time when goalies wore no masks, however a curve to sticks and wicked puck speed changed that. Remember the days of flowing locks and no helmets? Hockey has proven it can study, assess and change when proven safety issues exist. Now is the time for the Players Association to call in the neurologists, trainers and statisticians and figure out the odds of who is injured and what can be done to prevent them. To this nurses eyes for most players a functioning chin strap is the first step.

This is just the first of what will be many of player safety related piece. For now my thoughts are with the family of Ben Fanelli as he fights to return to his previous state of health. 



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