NHL empowers spotters to identify players with concussions, pull them from game

Sidney Crosby, Mike Sullivan
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who will sit out the start of the season because of a concussion, talks to Coach Mike Sullivan during a game last season.
(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)

The NHL, which is facing a class-action lawsuit over its policies regarding head trauma and brain injuries, on Tuesday announced it had modified its procedures and its concussion protocol. The most notable changes will empower specially trained spotters—who will watch every game at the league’s New York office--to request the removal from games of players who exhibit signs of a possible concussion, and the new authorization of on-ice officials to require that a player be removed from a game and be evaluated “if they observe a player displaying visible signs of concussion under the protocol, following a direct or indirect blow to the head.”

The new policies and procedures, negotiated with the NHL Players’ Assn., will take effect when the season opens, on Wednesday. The league will fine teams that do not remove a player who has been identified as in need of evaluation for a possible concussion, and the fine will grow with each subsequent offense. In addition, players designated for a mandatory evaluation won’t be permitted to return unless they are cleared by the medical staff of their respective clubs.

The NHL has previously employed in-arena spotters whose duties involved monitoring players for signs of concussion, but the spotters had no specialized medical training and often had other duties as members of stats crews. Some of them were stationed far from the ice, making it difficult for them to spot possible signs of concussions.

Under the new policy the NHL will employ Central League Spotters who “are all certified athletic trainers who have clinical experience working in elite level hockey, and have received training on the visible signs of concussion in the protocol.” The in-arena spotters have received training on “the visible signs of concussion,” the league said in its statement, and their duties will be limited solely to monitoring players for signs of concussions. The in-arena and Central League spotters will be allowed to communicate with each other, but only the Central League spotters will be allowed to communicate with a team’s medical staff regarding the removal and evaluation of a player.


The league has been defending itself against a class action lawsuit joined by more than 120 players. They allege that the league failed to warn players of the effects of repeated concussions, failed to adequately care for players who suffered such injuries, and “promoted and glorified unreasonable and unnecessary violence leading to head trauma.” The results, they allege, have resulted in players suffered from or being at an increased risk of contracting Alzheimers’s dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has denied that there is conclusive evidence of a link between brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that has been found in autopsies of about 100 NFL players and about a half-dozen NHL players.


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