The Leafs Organization vs. Head Injuries


As I’m sure you saw during the live feed, on the highlights, and repeatedly gif’d across the internet, Dion Phaneuf went for a hit on Patrick Marleau last night and took out James van Riemsdyk instead. (If you missed it, you can find it here). Immediately following the hit, van Riemsdyk was very slow to get up and looked dizzy. Enough so that Joe Bowen and Greg Millen immediately assumed concussion on-air, which is relevant because they’re biased (in the lovable, acceptable because it’s a local feed) way and will always give the benefit of the doubt.

The end result? van Riemsdyk went to the quiet room for a couple of minutes, was deemed good to go, and put back on the ice, despite the Leafs being down 5-1 with ten minutes to go. Not just that, but the momentum was still very much in San Jose’s favour at this point. My first thought when he came out was along the lines of “when will this team ever learn?”. Lets talk about not one, not two, but nine cases involving the Leafs and Marlies over the past two and a half years.

A History

This isn’t the first time that the Leafs have rushed a player out upon receiving a hard hit to the head, and it won’t be the last. Summer buyout Mikhail Grabovski received not one, but two hits to the head from Zdeno Chara in February 2011 game against the Bruins, and upon being unable to properly stand the second time, he still didn’t even see quiet room time. Here’s then-GM Brian Burke’s telling of the tale:

“He would not have been allowed to return to play had he exhibited any symptoms of concussion… Our trainer is supposed to examine a player and make a determination. If he has concussion symptoms, at all, he’s done for the night.”

“He had no symptoms after the hit, none post-game, none this morning. This is a player with no symptoms.” (James Mirtle)

The trainers saw him! They didn’t see a problem! A++! But if you ask Grabovski for his side..

“Well, I think I had a mild concussion, he said. “But I recovered pretty quickly. And now I am feeling absolutely fine.” (Dmitry Chesnokov)

He brushes it off as no big deal in the long run, but the point at hand is that he knew that something was wrong when it happened. For even the most minor of concussions, it’s recommended to not do pretty much anything for at least six days. Grabovski, knowing what was up but having the encouragement of his staff, went out less than six minutes later.

Scored the best goal of his career though, so it’s all good. (But not really)

This happens at the AHL level as well. Playing for the Toronto Marlies in a lockout-fueled over-ripening (26 points in 27 games while being taught how to be defensively responsible), Nazem Kadri was the man to watch in a Boxing Day showdown against the Hamilton Bulldogs. Zach Stortini agreed with this thought, and felt that the best way to shut him down was with a blindside hit to the head. Kadri was slow to get up, and also looked like he was in another dimension in the ensuing seconds.

He got to the bench, didn’t complain, and the coaches sent him out for on a powerplay given for his own hit to the head. It worked out on the scoreboard; Kadri got an assist. But shortly after that, his headaches became too much to handle and he left the game.

That was the last hockey he’d play for about a week and a half. Dallas Eakins responded with this after the game:

“He was having headaches. So we immediately shut him down, and we have no other update right now. But yeah, they started to come on as he was walking in. We’ll re-evaluate him today or tomorrow to see where he’s at.”

You can say that he didn’t inform the coaching and training staff that he wasn’t feeling right and that maybe he should be looked at, but at the end of the day, it’s well known that hockey players are stubborn beings and the “you must be tough beyond tough, more so than those mere mortals elsewhere” culture will make them do some reckless things to themselves because they feel obligated to. Every player should be attended to after a hard hit to the head.

He isn’t the only one who hid his issues, either. Let’s stay on the Marlies. Just three weeks before Kadri’s concussion, Jake Gardiner was the victim of a head shot from Rochester Americans forward Kevin Porter.

Like Kadri, Gardiner played on the powerplay given for the hit. Like Kadri, he helped out on the scoresheet, scoring just five seconds in. Like Kadri, his concussion symptoms eventually became overwhelming and he left the game. In this case, Eakins had this to say:

“He played a hell of a game, didn’t he? Jake got hit to the head, you know, it wasn’t a real concussion state or anything like that he just was not feeling quite right and with all of our players, we err on the side of caution. We’ll re-evaluate him later tonight and tomorrow.

Yeah, [his symptoms] kind of came on later in the [second] period, so, uh, listen, he had a great game, provided some big offence for us and goals and real good times.” (Cam Charron)

A couple days later, that quote turned into this one,

“He’s got a bunch of issues in his neck and some headaches, so yes it could be symptomatic to a concussion or could be symptomatic to neck pain,” Eakins said at practice. (Canadian Press)

Which turned into Brian Burke stressing that it was just whiplash, which eventually turned into

And while he did, scoring 17 points in 22 games, a concussion suffered after taking a hit last month has likely stalled his start to the NHL season.

“Those types of injuries, their status is sometimes fast sometimes slow,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, who added that once healthy Gardiner would need 10 to 14 days to get back into game shape. (Michael Traikos)

Gardiner ended up missing a month of play before joining the Leafs when the lockout-shortened season began. After a couple of games of disappointing play, they sent him down to the Marlies. While he was down there, he had a long stretch where he played timid, overly cautious hockey, to the point where his offensive game and puck moving abilities appeared to have been lost. It’s possible that even after it was deemed a concussion, he still came back early.

Eventually, his game came back together and he returned to the Leafs, where he’s been more or less himself since. He still shows a lot more caution when going behind the net now, something that has negatively effected his game, but in his defence, is to make sure nobody negatively effects his brain.

Speaking of whiplash…

Remember when James Reimer had his net rushed by Brian Gionta a couple weeks into the 2011/12 season? The hit that makes us cringe whenever anybody interferes with him to this day? The one that had the potential to be career ruining? Yeah, that one.

Reimer played through the rest of the period. Ron Wilson said that Reimer could have played the entire rest of the game, but that they figured it was too early in the season to take a chance:

“He got an elbow to the head and felt like I guess you could call it whiplash-type symptoms,” said Ron Wilson, following the victory. “He could’ve finished the game, but this early in the season we didn’t want to risk it.” (Jonas Siegel)

The Leafs lost reimer for nineteen games before staff cleared him to play. When he did come back, it looked like we lost him, as he finished the year with a disappointing 0.900 SV%. He came back the next season with  lots of time to rest and rehabilitate, and stood on his head, with a 0.924 in the regular season, and a 0.923 in the playoffs. This year, he’s been a little disappointing, a 0.911 in his 26 games played, but one wonders how much the irregular schedule he’s received as a backup plays into it, along with his MCL strain early in the year.

There was a lot of disgust felt when Phil Kessel’s biggest fan Dave Feschuk decided to call Reimer’s mother about his injury, but to his credit, he unearthed this gem of a quote:

“That’s the frustrating part for us — not knowing what it is, and why they’re not calling it a concussion when they say ‘concussion-like symptoms,’” Marlene Reimer said. “Like, how is that not a concussion? … The initial test showed him to be clear of a concussion. But as it goes on, it’s kind of mystifying. He’s okay some days. And some days he’s definitely not okay.” (Dave Feschuk)

It’s a very telling statement. Do the Leafs not know how to properly gauge a head injury? Are they turning a blind eye so they can continue to use their players? Either way, it doesn’t matter. Reimer is fine today. In fact, according to his agent, he’s been fine since April 2012! By the way, that means he played approximately 28 games with concussion symptoms after being cleared to play. 

Lets go back to the Marlies. You all remember Jeff Finger, right? The 3.5 million dollar a year wonder that made you wonder why exactly he was signed to the deal that he received? Yeah, him. After being unable to crack the Leafs lineup in 2010/11, he was sent down to the Toronto Marlies. It worked out pretty well for the team at first, as the AHL matched his mobility ability and, minus time missed due to various injuries he turned out to be the dominant shutdown defenceman Leafs management was hoping he’d be a level up. That is, until he too suffered a concussion.

The craziest thing about Finger’s concussion is how little information there is about it. There isn’t a quote anywhere. We know he suffered it in January 2012. That it was an undisclosed injury for two months, one that made him incapable of skating, with the team or by himself. Two months later, it was labelled as a concussion. Two years later, and Jeff Finger still hasn’t returned to hockey, and probably won’t ever again.

Current Leafs defenceman Paul Ranger also suffered a concussion while with the Marlies last season, joining the unfortunate club on January 13th. Thanks to a road trip, staff had a few days to figure out exactly where he was at before anyone in the media asked, and the ensuing answer was more direct than most of the other cases.

“(Ranger) still has concussion symptoms,” said Eakins. “He’s improved greatly, but you get the same thing every time, ‘I just don’t feel right.’ So until he feels right were not going to put him out there.”

While the Whitby, Ont. native hasn’t skated in nine days, he has returned to off-ice workouts, which is good news to Eakins.

“He’s working out, which is a great sign,” said Eakins. “It’s when they’re doing nothing that could really worry me.” (Kyle Cicerella)

The issue with this one lies in the fact that it has the same beginning as Gardiner and Kadri’s. Rather than going straight off, Ranger was allowed to keep playing, and finished the first period. He didn’t return for a month and a half afterwards.

“Toughing it out” isn’t just a minor-league philosophy either. In fact, the worst case of them all happened on the Maple Leafs. Colby Armstrong was concussed in a December 2011 game against the Vancouver Canucks, and didn’t say a word about it and kept playing. When the next game came about, he still wasn’t ready to go, but rather than tell the staff that it was he was suffering concussion symptoms, he told them he was having a re-occurrence of his foot injury, presumably so he had more control of when he would return.

After the skate, Armstrong told reporters he felt good enough to play against the Kings. But that changed in the afternoon and it had nothing to do with his foot, although it was assumed after the game that was why he did not appear in the lineup.

As it turned out, it was his head that was the problem, literally as well as figuratively. Wilson said Armstrong actually suffered a concussion in the Canucks game and tried to hide it from the team’s medical staff.

But on Monday afternoon Armstrong was stricken by concussion symptoms, becoming so nauseated he threw up. Wilson said Armstrong, who already missed 23 games this season with a foot injury, is now out of the lineup indefinitely.

“He didn’t tell the trainer he had his bell rung [in the Canucks game]” Wilson said. “He kept it from us. Now he’ll be out for however long it takes [to recover]” (David Shoalts)

You can feel for Armstrong, to an extent; it was the first year of his three year deal with the Leafs, and up to this point, he only had two points in sixteen games. He didn’t want management, or the fanbase to give up on him right off the bat, and went above and beyond to the point of self-endangerment. But this isn’t a broken nose we’re talking about. Playing through a head injury crosses the line from bravery to stupidity. Stupidity encouraged by your currently scrambled brain, but stupidity nonetheless.

One can also question Toronto’s ability to take concussions into consideration when signing players to new contracts (possibly all injuries, if the David Bolland negotiations are still ongoing and include significant money). John-Michael Liles was hit by Paul Gaustad in a December 2011 game against the Buffalo Sabres. As you’d expect with the prior examples considered, he returned to the game, and then disappeared for over a month.

The Maple Leafs placed defenceman John-Michael Liles on injured reserve Tuesday with “concussion-like symptoms,” said coach Ron Wilson.

“We’re shutting him down for a few days,” said Wilson. “He was better today, but not ready to go.”

“We just wanted to make sure you don’t over-diagnose somebody,” said Wilson. “You have to give it a couple of days. Right now it’s best if he just sits out and stays away from the rink a couple of days.”. (Kevin McGran)

I feel like over-diagnosing a head injury is probably the smarter option, all things considered, but that’s not the point. The point is that before he returned, while he still wasn’t even cleared for contact, the Toronto Maple Leafs agreed to a 4 year deal with him. You could probably figure out why; he had 21 points in his first 33 games as a Leaf and appeared to be the puck-moving defenceman they had been lacking. 

But why not wait to see if he was fully recovered? You get to see if he’s still capable of playing at the same level, and you don’t have a guy with a brain injury rushing himself back in the lineup because he feels personally pressured. Sure enough, he returned a week later, and didn’t score a point for the next eight games, and only had points in 4 of 32 games to close out the year. He struggled to stay in the lineup the next two years, escaped a compliance buyout because the Leafs only had two of them, and was eventually traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Tim Gleason this January. Liles has just four points in 26 NHL games this year.

If you don’t feel like Liles rushed himself back into the lineup, there’s always this:

“There [were] still times in the summer where it was like ‘Man, I still just don’t feel like myself. I’m still working but it doesn’t feel like me on the ice yet’,” he recalled. (Jonas Siegel)

His mid-season extension was signed prior, but another Leafs player whose concussion was pushed to the side was Joffrey Lupul. Lupul was the victim of a double hit next to the boards in April 2013, and he was so shaken up that he actually missed the bench the first time he tried to head off. He also returned to the ice shortly after. Randy Carlyle played it off as no big deal. 

Randy Carlyle says Lupul feels fine now. Said he’s 50/50 to practice tomorrow. Will have to see how he responds. (Jonas Siegel)

‘No, that’s a bad word. We don’t use that word until we’re 100% sure.’ (Mark Masters)

It turned out to be the concussion that we all feared, the second of Lupul’s career. 

“It’s a concussion,” said Lupul. “I suppose it wasn’t as clear in the first couple of days because you need to see if you can sleep and they have to keep watch on that, and see what the symptoms are. I’d say it’s a mild one, given the fact I’ve been skating and practising with the team all along.” (Mark Zwolinski)

Carlyle went further, jumping on the people for correctly assuming it as bad:

“The first problem was everybody was wanting to claim that it was this, or it was that. And the first couple of days, he did not have concussion-type symptoms. But that seemed to develop after the first two days. As you notice, he was back on the ice right away. He had vision issues. He lost some peripheral vision and that was the first thing we were trying to deal with. After that, those got corrected and we thought we were clear of it and then the concussion symptoms occurred, so I guess you could say he has a concussion.” (Mark Zwolinski

He missed five games before returning to the lineup. In the 76 prior, he had 79 points. Since returning, he has 46 points in his last 71 games.

Last but not least, I’d like to talk about a player who’s concussion came from a fight, rather than a hit. In January of 2011, Colton Orr dropped the gloves with George Parros and went hard to the ground. The Leafs downplayed what happened, saying he could possibly play in the next game:

Enforcer Colton Orr did not practise with the Maple Leafs this afternoon but coach Ron Wilson said that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be in the lineup tomorrow night when the Washington Capitals visit the Air Canada Centre.

Orr fell face first to the ice at the conclusion of a fight with Anaheim’s George Parros Thursday and left the ice a bit groggy during Toronto’s 5-2 victory over the Ducks.

“He lost his balance and he hit his head on the ice. So we’re just being cautious. He’s getting some consultation with the doctors to make sure everything all right,” said Wilson. (Paul Hunter)

He was put on injured reserve the next day, and a week later, the quote turned into

“He’s going through some further tests and that’s as far as I’ll go on that,” said Ron Wilson. (Jonas Siegel)

It took about two months until Orr’s symptoms began to go away, but Orr’s season was over. He didn’t get the green light to actually play until six months later.

“I got hit and I hit the ice. I experienced concussion symptoms. I needed time to rest and heal,” Orr said.

“I was a rare case, a lot of my stuff showed up on MRI, cognitive tests, where I didn’t show the results like they should be.”

Initial reports suggested Orr might be ready to play again with about two weeks remaining in the season. But he was shut down for the 2010-11 campaign and his health status was left somewhat of a mystery until Friday’s announcement. (Mark Zwolinski)

Orr played five games for the Leafs in 2011/12 before being sent down to the Toronto Marlies, where Dallas Eakins played him sparingly. He’s gotten a second lease on his career, though; as we all know, Randy Carlyle loves his enforcers and has kept him up with the big club for the past two seasons.

With that said, Orr has appeared to have another concussion scare, this time as the giver, knocking out George Parros. Since then, he’s fought less and he’s been less aggressive in those scraps, which has reduced his overall effectiveness.

What’s Your Point?

This is at least the eleventh time in the past two and a half years where a Leafs player takes a severe shot to the head and what comes after has you scratching your head. We have the following horrifying problems:

  • Players who don’t want to admit to their injuries
  • The team not acknowledging the injuries to the media
  • The team misdiagnosing injuries

I say horrifying because of the body part that we’re talking about. If a player plays through, say a hand (ask Joe Colborne about his seven months), or leg (watch Dion Phaneuf every time he blocks a shot, and consider the optional practices he’s been missing lately and how less agile he’s looked in the latter half) injury, it has potential to effect how they play hockey in the immediate, and if they’re very unlucky, the long term.

Concussions and other head injuries are an entirely different beast that cause permanent damage, can leave symptoms for years if not your entire life, and can legitimately alter your brain chemistry. They are absolutely nothing to mess with.

On the first point, we’ve developed a culture that expects players to act like they have the bodies of comic book heroes, and not human beings. Even if they see taking care of their body as selfish (which would be dumb), playing through the pain doesn’t help the team like they think it does; the short term gain will be vastly overwhelmed by the long-term loss. The more we become obsessed with the “this guy broke his leg and stayed on the ice, so he is awesome, and this guy left the game, so he is a wuss” philosophy, the worse it will get.

Professional hockey is ultimately an entertainment product. Yes, it’s a competitive sport to the players, but they get paid because it’s a job. Specifically, to entertain fans enough that they will spend more money on the product. We expect our employers to give us time off if we get hurt on the job. Why is that different here? Why do we encourage these guys to risk their bodies even more so than they already do, for a perceived notion of “grit”? It’s borderline insane, and incredibly hazardous.

If it was my call, any head contact that leaves a player in even the slightest state of disarray should keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the game. If you’re worried that this will encourage teams to go after the heads of star players? Increase the discipline. 

The lack of proper and deflective reporting is also irresponsible. I understand the hockey reasoning; you don’t want to flaunt “weak spots” to your opponents, hence “__er body” injuries becoming all the range in the past few years, but brain injuries should be the exception to the rule. I’d like to believe that most players see a history of head trauma as a sign of caution rather than encouragement.

As well, this is the biggest fan and media market in the entire hockey world. The Leafs have millions of impressionable young fans, and concussions are becoming an issue in youth hockey as well. Being open about what’s going on and encouraging major safety precautions should me a major priority, and the Leafs have the biggest platform to do it in the entire sport. Instead, they frequently deny a problem exists, whether it be the rushing of a guy back onto the ice, or understating the severity to the public.

The misdiagnosis is a major issue too, but I’m not sure exactly how widespread that is and how exactly to solve it. Maybe hire more doctors who specialize in this? It’s not like the Leafs have a salary cap on medical staff. 

One thing is for certain; the Leafs continue to have an issue with how seriously they take head impact and what comes after it. They’re not the only bad apple in the basket; other NHL teams surely have their cases too, but in an era where this issue is taken more seriously than ever, I shouldn’t run out of fingers to list mismanagement by a single organization in less than three years. They’re averaging a “whoops” moment every three months or less, and that doesn’t include any that I’ve missed.

Regarding van Riemsdyk

As it stands, we don’t know if there’s any issues that will come out of this just yet. 

In the best case scenario, he’s actually fine, and letting him back out onto the ice wasn’t detrimental. A little bit of a pointless risk in such a lopsided game with so little time left, but no harm done.

The worst case scenario? He “suddenly” has symptoms appear in the coming days. He misses some time, that may or may not be rushed because the Leafs are closing in on a playoff spot and miss their first line left winger. If he is rushed, he may or may not be the same.

One hopes for the former. Not even from a fan perspective; rather for the sake of his safety. Given the Leafs’ history with these injuries, however, it’s not crazy to expect this story to keep developing.

  • All valid points, but I think before dumping on the Leafs specifically, you’d have to go through all the other organizations and see how they handle things. It is absolutely true that this seems to be a horrible way of dealing with head injuries, but is it a Leaf problem or a hockey problem? Not that that excuses it, but it’s an important distinction considering the title of the post.

    • It’s probably a hockey problem on the whole, but it take forever to go through all 30 teams to find scenarios, and to be honest, I can’t think of all too many of these goof-ups for other teams off hand.

      I’d wager that other teams have this problem sometimes too but that the Leafs do it more frequently. Even if it is equal, the Leafs should be the innovators at the forefront, taking care of their players. Being less guilty on a relative scale doesn’t make them not guilty, and they should be working on it.

  • Wow, I guess you really do not like the Leafs much. I wonder why you write under the Blue and White Heading? Just go to a different colour then the real Leaf fans will be able to tell that you are not a fan not too objective in your comments.

  • Really liked the article, there’s no such thing as too much exposure when it comes to head injuries and the way we deal with them. Hopefully progress continues to be made in the diagnosis and treatment of head injuries moving forward (concussions and others) and that the Leafs organization can start being a little more progressive in their approach.

    The real question remains however: when did the Leafs start employing the mysterious 3rd Koivu?