It could be career ending news for Chris Pronger. The verdict from a Pittsburgh based concussion specialist was severe post-concussion syndrome. The Flyers captain, and stabilizing force on defense will miss the remainder of the season and at 36, you have to wonder if he’ll ever play again. The truth is, we don’t even know if Pronger will ever be healthy enough to play in the NHL again. Former Flyer Keith Primeau still battles the effects of his concussions years after they forced his retirement. If Pronger were to get a clean bill of health, you couldn’t blame him if he chose retirement, the dangers of one more head injury unknown.
Hockey clearly has a concussion problem. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon. The arc of Flyers history was forever altered by the multiple concussions Eric Lindros suffered during his time in Philadelphia. There are players like Primeau, Paul Kariya and Pat LaFontaine who have been forced out of hockey due to head injuries, even Lindros’ brother, Bret, had to retire because of multiple concussions. Still, they seem more prevalent now. Especially in Philadelphia, where the team’s premiere defenseman is out for the year and their leading scorer is out, “indefinitely.” Add that to Sidney Crosby’s struggles to return after his concussion and you’ve got a sport that is going to need to soon figure out how to keep their star players on the ice.
There’s no doubt awareness has risen, and that probably makes the injury appear more prevalent than it was 10, 20 years ago, but I have to think that hockey has also passed some type of critical barrier where the players are just too big, moving too fast, and the impacts are too great. It’s not hockey’s problem alone. The NFL faces a similar dilemma. Their attempts to limit contact to the head, to this point, appear to be largely unsuccessful–unless the intention was to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in player fines. The one thing the NFL does a decent job of is keeping the QB on the field. They take heat for it, but maybe it’s a start. In the NHL all players are equally vulnerable.
The biggest problem the NFL faces is trying to legislate head injuries out of a sport that relies on such violent collisions. Contact is obviously an integral part of hockey as well, but it’s much easier for me to envision hockey without the violent impacts than football. Don’t get me wrong, I love the physical nature of hockey. I like watching the big hits, I’ve always been pro-fighting, but I also like to watch my team’s best players on the ice. If any sport is going to successfully change, I think they’re probably going to have to start from the youth leagues, the minor leagues, or somewhere besides the highest professional level. The NFL players have proven they aren’t adept at changing their style of play. I’m sure no one in the NHL wants to be thought of as a guy who can’t play a physical game, so I think you’re basically going to have to train a new generation of players to play a different way and then hope that when they get to the NHL or the NFL that background will take over.
As far as what losing Pronger does to the Flyers season, it’s hard to determine right now, because the Flyers are so hot. They’ve won 7 in a row and are one of those streaks where you could plug almost any player into the lineup and they’d get a win. Missing Pronger and Giroux, they’re still scoring a ton of goals and facing little resistance. You’d have to think, though, that the injuries will eventually catch up with them. Scott Hartnell isn’t going to score every game, and the team in general isn’t going to score 4 goals a game the rest of the season. The Flyers have shown plenty of fire power, and of course you hope Giroux can return, but I imagine the wheels are already in motion to sure-up the defense in some way.