Concussions have an impact on women’s hockey

14 Oct 11: Stefanie McKeough (Wisconsin - 5) The University of Wisconsin - Madison Badgers host the The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers at The Kohl Center in Madison, WI (Dan Sanger)
Stefanie McKeough had her college career ended by a concussion. (Dan Sanger)

Thankfully, I’ve never been in attendance at a hockey game where someone has suffered an injury that caused paralysis. I’ve witnessed several close calls, where players were motionless for a time and placed on a backboard, and such injuries can transform a noisy arena into one of the quietest crowds on earth in an instant.

A similar hush can descend when a player suffers a broken leg. A few barely audible whispers, the injured athlete perhaps sobbing, or in one memorable case, screaming. Memorable, but not in a good way.

Due to no body checking, there aren’t a lot of big hits in women’s hockey, but a few times a season, there will be an inadvertent collision where two players wind up going in opposite directions on the same path that is heard and felt by everyone in the rink.

“That big hit, at least if you see it coming, somehow you get a better focus,” said Paul Flanagan, who is in his seventh year at Syracuse after nine years coaching St. Lawrence. “Maybe it’s a huge hit and both players go down in a heap, they always seem to get up or seem to be better for the most part.”

The plays on which somebody suffers a concussion usually don’t stand out and often go unnoticed.

“It’s those little hits where you’re just not ready for it,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know if it’s just that element of surprise. And maybe there’s something to it with the actual brain not being ready. Sometimes, it’s nothing. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, ‘Well she barely hit the ice.’ And [the medical staff is] like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t take much to jar the brain.'”

Given that, sometimes it is surprising that there isn’t an even bigger problem with concussions and injuries in general in women’s hockey. The players fly around the ice at high velocity and come in contact with objects that don’t have a lot of give, such as the ice, the pipes, the boards — particularly at the base of an open door and the glass — especially the turnbuckles at the benches. However, these are tough, superbly conditioned athletes, and they are able to shake off many an impact. Despite the absence of body checking in the women’s game, however, the frequency of concussions seems to be higher than what is observed in men’s hockey.

“The thing that I’ve noticed in women’s hockey, now that I’ve been coaching it a long time, a lot of girls that never played boys’ [hockey] growing up, they don’t have an awareness and so they’re vulnerable, whether it’s in the corner or in front of the net,” Flanagan said. “We talk a lot in our little world of women’s hockey, some of these girls, the longer they’ve played boys’ hockey, because they’ve had to because of the fear of getting hit, they have a better awareness, and they’re better prepared when someone is around them. I’ve seen this with a lot of our female players; they’re vulnerable. When they get hit, get bumped, they go down, and I think a lot of the concussions are resulting from not so much a direct hit from an elbow or a stick. I think a lot of the concussions are when kids are vulnerable and not aware, they go down and they smack their head on the ice.”

Perhaps there is a physiological explanation as well.

“With female players, their neck strength just isn’t probably what it should be,” Flanagan said. “If you think about it, if you’re wearing a helmet, they just don’t have the traps or the neck strength to sustain that neck when they go down, and their head whips when they hit on the ice. There’s a lot of forces at work here, I think.”

The smaller size, on average, of a female player may work against her as well. Just as a passenger in a lighter vehicle will experience a greater impact when striking a pole at the same speed as the passenger in a heavier vehicle, the brain of a female hockey player is a passenger in a lighter vehicle when a collision with a stationary object around the rink occurs.

Concussions, as with most injuries, can result from the actions of an opponent. During his playing days at St. Lawrence, Flanagan saw a change began to take place in that regard.

“When I was playing in the late ’70s, I was in that first group that had to wear masks,” he said. “So we went from a game where you got cut the odd time, but people kept their sticks down, and the game was played a certain way with a lot of respect. You probably hear this from a lot of older players. And my senior year, [1979-80], you had to wear masks, and the game changed. There was no fear on the part of the person that was blocking a shot or going head first in to make a check. Certainly, the sticks came up, the elbows came up, because there was no fear. I guess the game lost a lot of integrity in terms of keeping your hands down and respect for one another.”

Having played with masks throughout their careers, female players may have the same abandon when it comes to putting their bodies in harms way, although without the same aggressiveness.

“I know on the men’s side and in the NHL, they’re putting in the targeting to the head rule, which is in the women’s game as well, but I really don’t see it as a problem in the women’s game where people are targeting the head and really trying to hurt people, which is great that it’s not in our game,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “Unfortunately, there’s still been an incredible amount of concussions in our game. You just look to the east of us with Wisconsin and some of their players, either careers have been ended or put on hold for a year.”

Concussions were a big reason that the Badgers went from a team that reached the NCAA final in 2011 and 2012 to not making the national tournament at all in 2013.

“If you’ve gone through it like we’ve gone through it in a couple of different cases, it can get frustrating for the staff, just because you don’t know when you might get that player back, if you get them back at all,” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said.

In fall 2012, the Badgers were hit with a double whammy. Stefanie McKeough, the reigning WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, experienced a return of concussion symptoms after suffering multiple concussions during her junior season. Brittany Ammerman, the team’s second-leading scorer among returning players, was sidelined by a concussion of her own after only three games. Ammerman’s injury eventually healed such that she could resume her hockey career the following season.

“So we got both sides of that coin, where we ended up getting one player back, and the other one ended up having to take a medical redshirt and hasn’t played since,” Johnson said. “I think from an athlete’s standpoint, that’s probably the biggest hurdle is the frustration of not knowing if I’m going to get up tomorrow and am I going to feel well enough to do what I need to do and find that consistency with getting up every day and feeling well. After you’ve been through it a couple times like we have, you rely on your trainers and you rely on your doctors. If they’re saying those kids aren’t ready to go, then they’re not ready to go.”

As to be expected, the occurrence of concussions is not uniform.

“As far as a number, I couldn’t tell you,” Johnson said. “It’s like the stock market. Some years, it’s good, and some years, it’s not good. It tends to go in trends, and you might go one, two, three years with nothing, and all of a sudden you might have a year where you end up having one, two, or three kids have a head injury.”

Frost’s history at Minnesota covers almost the entire NCAA era, as he joined the staff during the 2000-01 season.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen more concussions, necessarily, but certainly have seen them diagnosed more frequently,” he said. “I think as more and more information comes out about the brain and concussions and get some charges from the NCAA and the University of Minnesota, I think that’s one area that has gotten a lot more attention over the years.”

The attitude toward concussions was much more cavalier during the college days of Johnson and Flanagan.

Johnson said, “Back a bunch of years ago, especially when we were playing, if you get hit, ‘You alright? Yup. Okay, go back on.'”

It’s only been recently that the seriousness of these injuries and their long-term impact has been grasped.

“I think it’s come to the forefront a lot,” Flanagan said. “A lot of it these days is just better medical science with people being able, whether it’s doctors or trainers or coaches or even the athlete being able to understand the status of those. I don’t know if the actual incidence is any greater than it was back years ago, it’s just that we’re finding out that maybe a slight concussion in today’s world that keeps somebody out of the lineup for a bit. Years ago, that was just you got your bell rung and sucked it up and go play. I think a lot of it is just society’s mentality towards concussion. I think that probably, a lot of people previously didn’t understand the ramifications, just didn’t know. There probably wasn’t enough research out there and tell people, ‘Hey, you get your bell rung three or four times, you probably shouldn’t be playing.'”

For the most part, the advances have come in terms of what to do once a concussion has occurred, but less so on how to avoid them in the first place.

“You just don’t know when they’re going to happen or how they might happen, and that’s difficult, but it’s certainly the way it is right now,” Frost said.

Teams can be their own worst enemy, as many concussions are suffered in practice.

“We talk all the time when we’re doing battle drills and those types of things to make sure we’re never, one, putting yourself in a vulnerable position, which is extremely hard to do in the fast game of hockey, but more importantly, when you see numbers, hold up or steer them into a different area where you’re able to pin them and those types of things,” Frost said.

The coaches agree that with what is currently known: there’s only so much that can be done in the way of prevention.

“I think it’s just a respect thing,” Frost said. “You hate to see concussions happen in our game, when many times, they’re preventable by respecting your opponent. But at the same time, some of these things are so flukey and happening outside the game or happen in an instant where it wasn’t a cheap shot or anything like that. It was just a play that happened where all of a sudden, somebody has a concussion. I think we’re doing the right things by stiffer penalties in targeting to the head, but at the same time, I’m not sure that’s a real problem in our game right now.”

The problem boils down to the human body having to deal with sudden changes in velocity.

“Any time you have a confined space, whatever that space is, if it’s a hockey rink, the athletes are moving at a high speed, there’s going to be collisions,” Johnson said.

And unfortunately, with what is currently known about the brain and how to protect it, some of those collisions will result in concussions.

Look for part 2 of this article next week!