Dion Phaneuf delivers the hit that finished Michael Sauer's season.

 

The Sauer family can’t stay away from sports. Two brothers in the NHL, one retired from the AHL/ECHL, one retired from the NFL, a sister who played college basketball, and another who played soccer. The Sauer family also can’t stay uninjured, with a few of those careers ended by injuries, and the remaining two NHL careers in the balance thanks to concussions.

John Tortorella said Monday that the Rangers’ end-of-year meeting was the first he’d seen of defenseman Michael Sauer in months. Phoenix defenseman Kurt Sauer hasn’t played since early in the 2009 season. After now having missed three seasons, the likelihood that Kurt will be back is as close to zero as it can get. Per Tortorella, Michael isn’t expected to be ready for training camp. This week we’ll look back at the injuries that took the Sauers out of play, and look forward at what we might expect of them next season (hint: who knows?!?).

 

You don't have to be a Rangers fan to appreciate how awesome those toques are.

 

Michael SauerHit December 5th 2011 by Dion Phaneuf

With about five minutes left in the third and the Leafs up 3-2 over the Rangers, Phaneuf sends the puck up the boards from behind his own net. Sauer stops the puck near the blue line, and seems to lose it in his skates. While his head is down hunting for it, Phaneuf hammers him. Sauer’s helmet flies off, he falls to the ice, then gets up and skates off.

Dion Phaneuf delivers the hit that finished Michael Sauer’s season. Clean hit? It would appear so. Phaneuf doesn’t leave his feet, and the play isn’t penalized. It does look like Phaneuf’s shoulder contacts Sauer’s head, but Sauer and Phaneuf are both 6’3″, and if Sauer’s head is down, it’s just about level with Phaneuf’s shoulder. Unfortunate? Absolutely. Intentional? Only Phaneuf knows. At any rate, intent is irrelevant in this discussion. The hit happened, and the motivation isn’t the point.

After Sauer loses his helmet, the force of the hit propels him back into the boards, where it looks as though he hits his head on the way down onto the ice.There are no fewer than three separate opportunities to get a concussion here. The hit, hitting the boards, and hitting the ice. Yes, Sauer lost his helmet. Yes, that means it was improperly fitted. A properly fitted helmet should allow no more than one finger-width between the strap and the chin, and shouldn’t come off in case of an impact.

While helmets haven’t been proven to prevent concussions, they do absorb some of the impact energy. It’s not unfair to say that you’d rather have your helmet absorb that energy than your brain. After an unsuccessful attempt to skate for a few days in January, Sauer had been MIA until Monday. Unfortunately the news from Tortorella wasn’t good – he said Sauer is nowhere near being ready to start working out, and won’t necessarily be ready for training camp.

Clearly the fact that he’s not only not working out but not even hanging out around the team is an indicator that Sauer is still very early in the recovery process. Worse yet, the word “early” is a bad choice, because it implies that he is at the beginning of an expected or predictable recovery progression. The truth is that concussions are the jerkiest of the jerk injuries, and Sauer could be stuck with any number of symptoms for any length of time. Looking ahead there’s no way to guess at what can be expected of Mike Sauer. He could as easily be back for training camp as he could miss three years like his brother. Time is the determinant.

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Kurt SauerHit September 2009 in a preseason game against Anaheim

Last time Kurt Sauer played in an NHL game Dave Tippett was brand new to Phoenix, Ilya Bryzgalov was in net, and @BizNasty2point0 didn’t exist yet.

In a 2009 preseason game against Anaheim, Kurt Sauer took a hit he described as “minor”. As he was shoved into the boards he put up his hands to stop himself, and his head flew back. He finished the game, but noticed right away his eyesight wasn’t right. He played again in the preseason, and in the opener against the LA Kings. His eyesight still wasn’t doing what it should – he was having to anticipate where the puck would be because he couldn’t see it. The Coyotes scratched Sauer for conditioning. The conditioning quickly uncovered his injury, as skating made him dizzy, and he woke up every day with headaches. He continued trying to skate and work out, hoping he’d “get used to it”. In November he told Dave Vest of PhoenixCoyotes.com that he was hoping to be skating with the team within a week. February rolled around and he was still skating alone, still having balance and vision problems, and still having pain in his neck and shoulders. Sauer finally shut himself down, realizing that he wasn’t getting better and worried by his symptoms.

In April of 2010, Kurt was making public appearances, and in May he said he hoped to be back for the preseason for 2010-11. He was listed on the training camp roster, but he never played.

Fast forward a year, and Sauer is having ongoing problems. A company called Brain State Technologies reaches out to him, offering him the chance to try Brainwave Optimization. The theory behind Brainwave Optimization is that emotional or physical trauma results in an imbalance in the brain’s energy. Sensors are placed on the scalp, and the brainwaves are detected and converted into audible tones, of which only the good/positive tones are played back to the patient through headphones. This restores the brain’s balance.

Note: I had a really, really hard time getting through that without launching into a diatribe about real science versus anecdotal evidence. I’m going to stop holding back now.

This technology was invented by a computer expert to treat his own problems. It’s never been studied as part of a randomized, controlled clinical research trial. All the evidence supporting this technology is anecdotal, and collected by the company that sells it. It claims to treat stress, pain, head injury, addiction, behavioural problems, anxiety, learning disorders and more. If you have the money and the interest, you can purchase the equipment needed to render this therapy and become a provider yourself. They’ll provide the education! No medical background needed! Any technology that’s never been independently studied, is not available at large academic hospitals, claims to treat that many different issues using the exact same modality, and has an expansive, wordy website that tries to sell the technology to anyone with enough cash to buy it is instantly a target for suspicion.

In the interest of complete fairness, mention must be made of a $600,000 grant awarded to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center by the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, a private nonprofit whose primary interest seems to be supporting the arts community in Asheville, NC. The grant is intended to fund research on migraine treatment using Brainwave Optimization. It appears that this is independent research that will not be conducted by the company that produces the technology, but rather by a researcher at Wake (Dr. Charles Tegeler, MD).

All (very obvious) biases aside, Sauer has said that Brainwave Optimization has helped him. In late 2011 he noted that his headaches and other pain had improved, and he was once again able to run and play with his kids. Whether this is real science or not (and that’s certainly debatable depending on your point of view), there is actual evidence to show that the placebo effect is a real thing. If Kurt Sauer feels better after lying on a couch while an expensive machine beeps in his ears, then carry on, sir. Carry on. As it stands right now, Sauer has missed three hockey seasons. He’s been using Brainwave Optimization since some time in early 2011 (that’s over a year if you’re counting). He feels well enough to play with his children, and if that’s as good as he ever gets, then it really doesn’t matter if time and rest (which have my vote) or beepy noises are responsible.

What’s next for Kurt Sauer? There’s even less point to speculating about his future than Mike’s. The fact that he’s feeling well enough to enjoy his children is amazing. If that’s the best result he’s ever capable of achieving, then so be it. Clearly his goal is to return to the ice, but every month that creeps by lessens the chance that’s going to happen, beepy noises or no beepy noises.

As with any other player suffering the effects of a concussion, the mechanism of the injury or the treatment used is quite frankly just trivia. Hopefully both Sauers will be back on the ice for next season (or eventually). We can go ahead and assume our usual concussion protocol: Wait and see.