How the new protocol could lead to more head-shots

As I understand the new concussion protocol that went into effect last night, an impartial (i.e. non team affiliated) M.D. must examine every player who exhibits or reports concussion symptoms during a game. If a concussion is diagnosed by the unbiased third party, the player is mandated to be symptom-free for seven days before he can be re-evaluated. 

Now:

  • Having actual doctors examine the players is a good thing.
  • Having the 7-day minimum waiting period is a good thing.
  • Not having brain damage and early dementia in your 40s is a good thing. 
  • Raising consciousness (no pun intended) among the players about brain injuries is a good thing.

I have always been a fairly militant proponent of eliminating head-shots, and I fully support all of the points I just mentioned. If I were the player in question, or if it were my own son or friend or spouse, I would insist that they snap out of their delusional "winning is more important than avoiding a drool cup in my 40s" mindset.

Sense a "but" coming?

Before the new "protocol" there was already some incentive -- by the way of thinking of "the culture of hockey" -- to run your opponent's star players. Why? Because it might intimidate them, throw them off their game, wear them down over time, and, in the most cynical cases, because you might hurt the guy and he'll sit out a few shifts or maybe even the game. And that increases your chances of winning.

And winning is everything. Winning means longer careers, more money, more security for your family. It's everything.

As a player, you know that -- in most cases -- if you give a guy a mild or borderline concussion, the player will shake it off if he can, and the training staff will err -- because of that "culture of hockey", which is really just the "culture of sports" -- on the side of keeping the player in the game. Even at the detriment of the player's health two decades down the road.

So -- in most cases -- you know that your efforts to ring the bells of your opponent's stars will most likely result in the mundane but useful "wearing down," "throwing off their game," etc..

Now, introduce the new protocol.

Now, the training staff doesn't make the decision. An impartial doctor examines the player. If you agree that the training staff is likely to err on the side of keeping the player in the game, what do you think about the unbiased doctor?

One of my parents is a doctor. You all know doctors. They don't shine things on. Even with malpractice insurance, they always err on the side of caution. Always. Because otherwise, they can lose their license. And also because they took an oath, and they're doctors.

Therefore, every single borderline or minor or mild concussion is going to be diagnosed as a concussion. And so every single player who sees stars is very likely to be looking at a mandatory seven day minimum suspension -- er -- evaluation period, after which more tests and more evaluation. Mandatory. Is this good for the health of the player?

ABSOLUTELY.

But do you think that this protocol -- the exponentially increased likelihood that a head-shot will lead to an opponent being forced to sit out for a week or more whether or not he says he's ready to go -- is going to make teams more or less likely to condone head-shots?

It used to be the strategic advantage of running players was that there was a reasonable probability of throwing the player off his game, accompanied by a much smaller probability that the player might get hurt. Now, there's still the reasonable probability that you will throw the guy off his game, but there is an exponentially increased likelihood that the player will be forced to sit out for one or more weeks.

That's a huge boost to the strategic advantage of running people.

And then there's this: before the protocol, only players who were absolutely unable to play were held out, because the system favored abusing their health if it gave the team an advantage.

Yes, that's horrible, and yes, for the health of the players, I'm glad that's changing. But focus on this: now, with the new protocol, the most mild, borderline possible concussion has the same effect as a life-threatening one. They both cause the injured player be suspended for a week or two. Or more.

Just to underline: I am in favor of this protocol. Actually, put it this way. I was 100% behind it. Now I'm 99% behind it.

But unless you think the culture of hockey has changed overnight, you have to assume that the players and teams are going to use every strategic advantage the rules provide. And in that context, I think the unintended consequence of the new protocol is likely to be a substantial increase in head-shots, not just because more are being called, but because players have more incentive to knock people out. Especially since just a half-power elbow to the head could do the trick. "Hey, man, he's barely hurt at all, and we don't have to deal with him for a week or two." Everybody wins.

What advantage could that possibly have in a playoff series? Or even, for teams on the playoff bubble, like Anaheim, playing the Kings twice to end the season; or Chicago, playing the Wings twice on the last weekend. It could be do or die for those teams. I really don't think teams are going to respect each other when their seasons are on the line. Nor are they going to be deterred by the fact that Steve Downie is suspended for the rest of the season for concussing Alexander Ovechkin.

Horrible or not (and it is horrible), that's a trade teams won't hesitate to make, like the chess master willing to trade pawns for queens.

Shorter me: the new protocol makes the players less safe, not more. Because it does a better job of protecting players who are already injured, but increases the incentive to injure them in the first place. Safer car, but incentive to crash.

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