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Prominent brain doctor calls for NHL to update 'shocking' concussion protocol

Isles forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau was left hobbling and visibly distressed after getting crushed by Alex Ovechkin. Moments later, he was back on the ice.

The NHL's polarizing concussion protocol is in the spotlight once again. (AP Photos)
The NHL's polarizing concussion protocol is in the spotlight once again. (AP Photos)

A hit delivered by Alex Ovechkin to New York Islanders forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau caught the attention of a prominent brain injury specialist, who was shocked to see Pageau return to action.

Killing off a penalty midway through the second period, Pageau chased a puck to the left corner where he wound up and took a slapshot, clearing the puck. Following him to the corner out of his sightline, however, was Ovechkin, who delivered a crushing hit to Pageau, contacting his head — which then struck the glass as Pageau completed his follow-through. As the Islanders’ own website described the play in their 4-3 loss to Washington, “a hit by Alex Ovechkin chased Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the dressing room…and the Caps scored twice in a 3:07 span before Pageau could rejoin the game.”

Following the hit, which was not assessed a penalty, Pageau was visibly unable to stand without assistance from teammate Noah Dobson, wobbling off balance in distress.

According to leading brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) specialist Dr. Chris Nowinski, the founding CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Pageau’s response showed clear signs of brain trauma. While the injury was troubling, Nowinski was equally shocked that Pageau was cleared to return to action in the game, and called on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to review the league’s concussion and head trauma protocols.

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Ataxia is a condition described by a lack of muscle control causing clumsy and uncoordinated movements, much like Pageau’s wobbly attempts to stand. Ataxia impacts balance, eye movement, and coordination, and can be a direct result of damage to the brain’s cerebellum.

When asked about their commitment to player safety, an NHL spokesperson provided the following statement to Yahoo Sports.

“Over the past 25 years-plus, the League has had an unwavering commitment to enhancing player safety,” the NHL spokesperson wrote.

“That commitment has included a focus on player education; dozens of changes to the playing rules (e.g., Rule 48 – Illegal Check to the Head; adoption of hybrid icing; and stricter standards regarding hits from behind and boarding, interference, slashing and cross-checking); numerous changes to player equipment (e.g., softening of shoulder and elbow pads, mandating visor use, independent testing of helmets); and changes to the playing environment (e.g., softening of the glass, curved glass system around the benches).”

According to the spokesperson, the NHL was also the first professional sports league to develop a Concussion Working Group, Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol, and to establish a Department of Player Safety.

As recent as 2019 however, commissioner Gary Bettman has openly denied and dismissed the links between head trauma suffered in hockey and CTE. Bettman’s stance on brain injuries has continued to be a concern among past players. “Gary Bettman denies that concussions are almost real,” former NHL player Chris Therien told Yahoo in 2022.

In 2018, the NHL was forced to pay $18.9 million to settle a class action lawsuit by more than 100 ex-NHL players who accused the NHL of "failing to better prevent head trauma or warn players of risks while promoting violent play that led to their injuries.”

Pageau is an 11-year NHL veteran with more than 600 career games, who had yet to miss a game this season, and was on pace for a career-high in points at the NHL season’s midpoint.

It’s not the first time Nowinski has called out the NHL, and it’s not the first time the NHL has refuted Nowinski and research from brain injury experts.

In 2022, a group of 14 brain injury scholars and experts published a new study discussing the links between hits to the head and CTE, specifically as it relates to repeated head injuries. The study concluded that the authors had the “highest confidence in the conclusion” that repeated head injuries cause CTE.

The NHL openly stated that they would not change their stance or policies related to brain injury based on a single scientific study.

“A single medical article does not determine our view on these issues,” Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, wrote to The Toronto Star at the time.“We rely on the consensus opinion of medical experts to guide us. Currently that consensus view does not align with the conclusions reached in the article you forwarded.”

Similar to this instance regarding Jean Gabriel Pageau, Nowinski disagreed with the NHL, condemning Daly’s stance.

“Bill Daly saying one scientific paper won’t change his view shows you that either he or the people he’s working for aren’t interested in thinking critically about this issue,” Nowinski told the Star.

While no penalty was assessed to Ovechkin in this case, the play could still be reviewed for subsequent discipline — though that appears unlikely at this point. The New York Islanders are scheduled to face the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. No lineup or roster announcements have been made to determine Pageau’s availability for the game.

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