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10 Years Ago: NHL Concussions Loom; Yashin/Peca Eve

This is how housecleaning goes down at my house: Mrs. Lighthouse starts cleaning one room, I start cleaning another, I end up moving something to the records room, get unavoidably distracted by a pile of old publications, and and lo and behold three hours later I haven't done my chore but I've thumbed through the 2001-02 Sports Illustrated and 2000-01 The Hockey News NHL previews.

So it goes.

I'll get to fun quotes about the Rangers and Eric Lindros, the Islanders and "the NHL's best young power forward" in 2001 in a moment. But first here are a few gripping bits on concussions from USA Today scribe Kevin Allen, writing in THN's 2000-01 preview. It's amazing how much we've seen in 10 years, and yet how little we've advanced until very recently:

From the intro of the article, titled "HEADACHE: The NHL Has a Migraine on its Hands and the Pain Just Won't Go Away" (boldface emphasis mine):

...That's why the concussion issue is so troubling, not just to the NHL, but to everyone in the medical community. We live ina  satellite world where a license plate can be read from outer space and near-sightedness can be corrected with a short snort of a laser. ... But when an NHL player gets smacked, even on a clean hit, we really don't know what goes on in his head. Despite wondrous advances in medical technology and painstaking research about the brain, we are still often left with theories and conjecture when it comes to concussions.

From the body of the article:

"One minority point of view that is gaining some momentum is that the league should ponder outlawing checking to the head as a means of curtailing head injuries."

It quotes advocate Dr. Pat Bishop, a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, who owns a PhD in impact biomechanics.

Having reviewed hockey collisions for 25 years, he concludes that some hits to the head, many of which are considered clean by the game's standards, are the equivalent of taking a knockout punch in the jaw.

"A blow on the jaw or face is very similar to what you see in boxing," Bishop says. "It puts a head in rotation into two planes and maybe three."

(The boxing comparison gets attention in the medical community because boxers, Muhammad Ali being notable among them, have shown long-term effects from multiple concussions.)

Bishop also suggests the NHL might want to re-asses blindside hits: "The hockey purist says, 'Well, the guy deserved it because he had his head down.' You are missing the point."

Then there's this unrelated but hilarious-in-retrospect bit, with Gary Bettman lamenting how difficult a head-check rule would be to officiate with so many players of varying heights:

"It is not easy," Bettman says, "which is why (NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell) struggles so mightily on supplemental discipline."

Heh, you could say that.

But this isn't to paint the NHL as totally in the dark or totally slow on this issue, which I think has gained more proponents after more gruesome high-speed collisions since the lockout. Here are two physicians discussing the foggy information available at the time:

"We don't completely understand the mechanisms whereby concussions occur or the implications in the long run. It's unlike analyzing the brain with an operation, or biopsy or a definite X-ray test. We don't have anything like that to guide us because everything is happening at the microscopic level. There is a lot of uncertainty. We don't have hard quantitative guidelines to go by to make recommendations to athletes."

And: "It will take a long time to get information that we can trust."

I think it's fair to say they've collected a lot of info they can trust in the intervening decade. It's interesting how, the more scary the hits, the career-enders and the data from repeat concussion sufferers in the NFL, the more people (including myself) have been willing to bend on issues like blindside hits, hits to the head, and the old worn-out proverb, "Keep your head up."


2000-01: A Season to Forget in New York

As for the on-ice hockey part of this preview, I'll just dig up a few quotes.

First, the Islanders, who were given a D+ at Goalie, Defense and overall ("Is Milbury a genius or a madman?"), and a C at Forward:

Wang and Kumar have expressed to Milbury a willingness to bump the payroll from barely $16 million to at least $26 million. Planned new contracts for Jonsson, Chara and Isbister signify the penny-pinching days are over. [...] That includes a refurbishing of the dressing room and the return to charter flights for road trips.

Holy time machine, Batman. There's just so much there.

Chalk Talk: Goring allowed the kids to take considerable chances last season and he'd like to open up his team's style further as the talent level progresses. Much of that could hinge on the development of DiPietro, who Milbury believes will become the league's best stickhandling goaltender.

Poor Butchie never had a chance.

But there are even better snippets for the Rangers, who welcomed back Mark Messier after his awful foray into Vancouver:

"As everybody knows, the Rangers' budget limit is unknown and maybe unreachable. Last year, the payroll topped out at an NHL record $61 million."

But no, no, we totally didn't need a salary cap. (The expected cap for 2011-12 has only just now crossed $61 million, by the way.)

Finally, some hilarious stuff from their Future Watch:

1. Pavel Brendl. Comment: Conditioning held him back
2. Jamie Lundmark: Comment: Compared to Sakic, Yzerman
3. Mike Mottau: Hobey winner may step right in

Now I don't care who you are, that's some fun stuff right there.

For the record, the Rangers and Islanders were the only Atlantic teams to miss the playoffs that year -- the Rangers finishing with 72 points and the Islanders bottoming out with 52.


2001-02 Season: The Yashin/Peca/Osgood Revival

Well, the reason I pulled these archives out for discussion was because the concussion story caught my eye, but I thought the hockey standings/roster context would be fun, too. The next year the Isles traded for Alexei Yashin and Micheal Peca plus Chris Osgood on waivers, and season previews were much more optimistic for an eventual playoff team.

SI's 2001-02 preview (Oct. 8, 2001 issue) rightly had them finishing above the Rangers (who missed the playoffs again with 80 points). The funny part though was where they ranked teams at each position. The Isles forwards were ranked 23rd, with this comment:

Brad Isbister may be NHL's best young power forward.


Anyway, it's ironic what Kostya Kennedy had to say in the SI profile of the Rangers, who were counting on Eric Lindros after he suffered a reported six concussions between March 1998 and May 2000, and hadn't played since:

"So much of the Rangers' future is tied up in their acquisition of Eric Lindros that general manager Glen Sather, a thoughtful man of 58, has been characterizing the deal as a symbol of his larger philosophies. "You can be a lion maybe once in your life, but if you don't make this deal, you're a mouse forever," he mused just after acquiring Lindros from the Flyers in late August.

Then at training camp Sather reflected: "The biggest chance you can take is not taking a chance at all."

[...] If Lindros goes down, however, the Rangers will suddenly be three steps back from where they stood at the end of last year's dismal 33-43-5-1 season.


Alright, hope you had fun with that. I know I did. Housecleaning rocks.