Yesterday Brian Burke came out and said what everyone was thinking when it was revealed Colby Armstrong played through a concussion: He shouldn’t have done it.
Not the bravest stance to take, sure, but definitely one that needed saying.
Concussions are, we’ve learned time and again over the last year, serious business, and attempting to play through them isn’t like attempting to play through a tweaked knee. You’re putting way more than your hockey career at risk when you have a concussion, because 200-pound guys skating 30 miles an hour are legally allowed to hit you as hard as they can. And Armstrong never said a word. Who knows why? We likely would have never found out if some meddling trainers hadn’t caught him puking in secret like a hungover high school student.
So it was nice for Burke to say what needed to be said on the subject. “Everyone tries to play hurt, but you should never try to conceal a head injury — no one admires that or respects that,” he told the media. “We grudgingly respect when players hide other injuries, because they do it routinely. (Head injuries are) one where we absolutely insist the players be forthcoming.”
But umm, isn’t this a little late?
Not that we have any reason to believe Colby Armstrong was anything besides an isolated case where the Leafs are concerned, but this is something that requires a hard-line stance from the league. Burke should have gone to the media the second this was discovered and been stern and swift with his admonishments for this kind of behavior. Nothing I saw in the days immediately following the revelation that Armstrong had practiced and played with a concussion indicated that the Leafs or anyone else had said, “Jesus, Colby, what the hell?” I’m sure there was some yelling behind closed doors, but when it’s an issue as serious as concussions, people need to know that more is being done.
That because’s it stands to reason that if Armstrong is trying to play through a concussion, other guys around the league are probably doing it too. Not a lot or anything, but a few. Maybe borderline guys who, as Harrison Mooney said last week on Puck Daddy, might see their spot Wally Pipp’ed if they were to miss any time, let alone the significant amount that usually comes with a concussion recovery. But any is too many.
Then there’s this other thing Burke said:
“Once the season starts, during the entire season, you’re never pain-free as a hockey player. Something hurts every day, with varying degrees of severity. I don’t think he’d had a concussion before. He wanted to see if the symptoms resolved on their own. He got through a practice OK, and then felt terrible. He’s in the protocol now.”
The key word there is “now.” That’s because as we’ve seen many, many times, lots of guys are still getting their bell rung and, despite league rules, are not getting sent to the quiet room for 15 minutes, no matter what 24/7 would have you believe. If teams want to take brain protection seriously, they’ll start testing guys every time something hits their head hard enough that they have to be helped off the ice. And the thing is, I don’t think Burke is doing anything wrong by not saying anything until right now. Certainly, I would imagine that what he said goes without saying for most people.
But the thing Burke said about “grudgingly respecting” guys playing through injuries is important to consider as well. That kind of tough-guy macho attitude has led to guys picking up more serious injuries in the past, so while there’s some amount of courage in playing at 85 or 90 percent instead of sitting out an extra game or two, discretion has and will always be the better part of valor. In these cases especially, guys need to be aware that what they’re doing with their brains affects far more than their ability to stay in the lineup or get a new contract. You can’t collect NHL paychecks when you can’t turn the lights on in your bedroom without getting a headache.
Burke, for better or worse, has the bully pulpit that comes with being Toronto’s (outspoken) general manager. He should have wielded heavier axe in decrying this type of behavior.