Mike Babcock’s take on concussions baffling:...
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Feb 04, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Mike Babcock’s take on concussions baffling: Feschuk

It was jarring to hear the Leafs coach outline his understanding of the NHL’s concussion protocol. It was easy enough to get the idea Babcock sees the concern around concussions as nanny-state bubble-wrapping of hard men playing a hard game


On the occasion of his 1,000th game as an NHL coach, Mike Babcock was asked to share a few tidbits from the vast store of knowledge and experience he’s accumulated in his years behind the bench.

It’s always educational and often entertaining to hear Babcock speak about his craft; most of the time he plays the role of a thoughtful philosopher wholly enthralled with his journey through his dream job. Which is why it was so jarring to hear Babcock outline his understanding of the NHL’s concussion protocol.

“Well, I think when a player says he’s okay to play and keeps playing, he’s okay to play,” Babcock said.

It was a ludicrous statement, to this ear. Given Babcock’s status as one of the most esteemed coaches in the sport — given his position as a role model and a mental-health advocate — it was disappointing to hear him say players suspected of being concussed should be left alone to make the decision about whether or not they continue playing.

Concussion experts will tell you that’s a very dangerous idea for many reasons, among them possibly impaired judgment, gross lack of expertise and implied pressure from peers and superiors. That’s why the NHL has concussion spotters in every arena and trained staff on every bench. That’s why the NHL is reportedly reviewing whether or not the Calgary Flames followed the league’s concussion protocol in the case of Dennis Wideman, who was suspended 20 games this week for abusing an official after he took a hit that resulted in what was later diagnosed as a concussion.

Babcock knows all of this, one has to assume. But this sounded like Babcock playing another role he has sometimes inhabited since he arrived in Toronto with a $50 million (U.S.) contract that makes him the richest coach in the history of his sport — the role of defiant critic of the way the game has changed. Sometimes, like when Babcock preaches about how goaltending equipment’s too big and scoring’s too low, as he did earlier this season, the role suits him and he makes some awfully good points.

Other times, like on Thursday when he seemed to be lamenting the passing of a less enlightened era in which possibly traumatized brains could unilaterally make the choice to continue being possibly traumatized, Babcock doesn’t so much sound like a 1,000-game veteran. He sounds 100 years old.

Maybe Babcock, who is actually 52, was joking; it didn’t sound like it. Even the dimmest of hockey bulbs understands that, given the piled-up evidence of the grim dangers of repetitive head trauma, a question about concussions isn’t supposed to be the set-up to a knee-slapping punchline. And Babcock, who talked on Thursday about how he set out in the adult world convinced he’d become a professor at alma mater McGill University before coaching got in the way, is nobody’s dim bulb.

And yet he kept talking like one. Speaking of how his team implements the concussion protocol, he implied he has put pressure on team staff to keep possibly concussed athletes on the ice.

“I put an unbelievable amount of duress on my poor trainer when he’s taking some player off the ice who should be killing the next penalty,” Babcock said. “You have no idea how kind I am during that interaction.”

It was easy enough to get the idea Babcock sees the concern around concussions as nanny-state bubble-wrapping of hard men playing a hard game. That’ll be a popular opinion in the same way Donald Trump got popular spouting nonsense. But it’s not an opinion that should be shared at a podium by an important public figure who styles himself as a teacher — let alone a teacher repeatedly pegged by Hockey Canada to coach the national team.

Babcock acknowledged he wasn’t wholly informed on the Wideman story. But, to be clear, he hadn’t been asked to comment on the Wideman story. He was asked to comment on his understanding of the NHL’s concussion protocol. He continued to give the impression it’s unacceptably minimal.

“On our team, when someone is unconscious or dazed or looks like they’re supposed to go to — what do they call it? — the dark room or whatever. I mean, some of these things aren’t even anything. They’re going to a dark room? I don’t quite get that,” said Babcock.

It’s actually, ideally, a quiet room — any area where a player can be examined away from the chaos of the arena. And since it’s an essential part of any credible concussion protocol, it’s less than optimal to have one of the most esteemed coaches in the game mocking its significance and dismissing it as a formality of “legal liability.”

At that point in Thursday’s press conference, Babcock said something more in keeping with his stature.

“And as we learn more and more, we’re more and more careful,” he said.

On the occasion of his 1,000th game, Babcock also said he has acquired “more perspective” as he has climbed the coaching ladder from his first job as head coach at Red Deer College in Alberta to his NHL debut in Anaheim in 2002.

“My goal as I got older is I want to make (players) better people first and better players second,” he said.

If it’s the people he cares about first, the people who populate the game in which he wields massive influence, he should get better at publicly addressing an issue that isn’t going away.

Toronto Star

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