Pucks can play key roles in concussions

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This post is part of a series looking at the issue and impact of concussions in the NHL. ProHockeyTalk and Comcast SportsNet are featuring pieces today as a lead-in to tonight’s special edition of NHL Live on Versus (6:30 p.m. EST.)

The official puck of the NHL is small in stature — one inch thick, three inches in diameter, between 5.5-6 ounces in weight — but its impact on head injuries and concussions can be large.

Recently, Philadelphia Flyers rookie Sean Couturier was knocked out of a game after taking a Kimmo Timonen slapshot to the head:

Couturier left the game and didn’t return. While he appears to have gotten off lightly — Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said he’s day-to-day with a head injury — it reminded many of two careers cut short by pucks to the head.

One career was that of Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens. He suffered a concussion after being hit by this Pavel Kubina slapper during the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs:

Stevens played through the injury en route to winning the Cup with the Devils that spring, but retired the next season after experiencing post-concussion symptoms.

Another career that was derailed in a similar fashion was Ian Laperriere’s. He suffered a brain contusion after blocking a Paul Martin slapshot during the 2010 playoffs:

Lapierre briefly returned to the lineup before shutting it down for good.

“They say I have a bruise in my brain and they don’t want any bleeding in there,” Laperriere said at the time. “We’re hockey players. We take pride in playing with injuries, but that’s one thing I just can’t afford to do for the sake of my family. Trust me, I want to be out there. It’s the type of play I’ve done 10,000 times in my career and I’m going to do it again.”

Unfortunately for Laperriere, he never played again. The contusion has forced him to miss each of the last two seasons with post-concussion symptoms — he’s since been advised by doctors to retire. (Laperriere still hasn’t formally done so, but is on long-term injured reserve. Ironically, the Flyers assigned his old No. 14 to Couturier.)

The aforementioned injuries beg the question: Is a better puck out there?

According to Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail, maybe there is.

MacGregor tells the story of Harry McEachern, who a half-century ago developed a new puck aimed at replacing the frozen rubber disc developed by Art Ross, Eddie Shore and others.

[McEachern] came up with a puck made of butyl rubber that was the same size and weight as the puck in the rulebook but had somewhat different characteristics.

The new puck required no freezing, as is still done to NHL pucks in order to keep them from bouncing. Butyl rubber, McEachern says, is an “energy-absorbing material” that doesn’t bounce well. The puck appeared to slide more easily on the ice and, mysteriously, caused very few cuts when flying up into players’ faces.

“If it came in touch with the skin,” McEachern says, “it didn’t break. I can’t explain it.”

Local leagues experimented with the new puck for a couple of seasons in the late 1950s and the Red Wings tried them out in practice and were suitably impressed. But the league never adopted it.

There’s no magic bullet when it comes to solving the concussion problem in hockey, but it will be important to examine every facet of the game — from pucks to shoulder pads to trapezoids on the ice — to minimize the impact of head injuries on the players.