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Sam Donnellon: Gagne shows that Flyers need to pay attention to concussion history

'HINDSIGHT's a wonderful thing," Paul Holmgren, the Flyers general manager, was saying before last night's game. "It's always 20/20."

'HINDSIGHT's a wonderful thing," Paul Holmgren, the Flyers general manager, was saying before last night's game. "It's always 20/20."

Well, not always. When Simon Gagne left a game against Florida last October with symptoms that suggested a concussion, Flyers management had the plights of two recent captains to draw from. Eric Lindros' accelerated attempts to return from hits to his head essentially reduced him from emboldened superstar to a oft-tentative role player. Similar attempts by Keith Primeau essentially ended his career.

Both men have said they would have taken more time before returning to play if they could do it again, that the knowledge of head injuries gained through their experiences would have tapered their eagerness to return to the ice.

Their hindsight was the Flyers' hindsight.

Yet when Gagne was knocked dizzy in that Oct. 24 game against the Panthers, the team avoided the C-word for days, calling it instead "dizziness." Gagne talked himself back in the lineup and was cleared to play by team doctors, taking the ice Nov. 5, but yesterday he acknowledged what many who had chronicled the Lindros and Primeau affairs suspected - there were lingering symptoms even then.

Two days upon returning, after a relatively benign hit, those symptoms screamed concussion and Gagne was shelved for 2 1/2 months. Upon returning to the lineup on Jan. 10, he played tentatively and underwent repeated treatments to alleviate pressure to the back of his neck.

Concussion symptoms returned after another mild hit in Pittsburgh on Feb. 10.

On Wednesday, Gagne went through 3 hours of testing from James Kelly, a concussion specialist who has advised several NHL players, notably Paul Kariya. What he got was another dose of 20/20 hindsight.

"From a medical standpoint, it says that I had three concussions," Gagne said last night. "But [Kelly] believes all the problems have come from the first one. And he doesn't think it's three different concussions. He believes that the first one was not quite fine, not quite healed.

"Every time I was getting a little hit to the head, the symptoms were coming back. He believes it was all coming from that first concussion."

Which takes us right back to the start. When the Flyers at first called Gagne's injury "dizziness," it was understandable, albeit not excusable. Getting Lindros and Primeau back on the ice after their concussions had been team-sapping soap operas, and the 4-3 loss to the Panthers that night was only the Flyers' second of the season.

Gagne had no history of head injuries, so why rush to label it?

Less understandable, or excusable, was allowing Gagne to return so quickly.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but the objects in the Flyers mirrors were right there, two larger-than-life heroes of their most immediate past. More than any organization, they had firsthand experience of the dangers of their stars rushing back too soon.

They had seen it twice, in fact.

And now it's three times.

"We did what we did," Holmgren said. "Whether that's related to what's going on now, who the heck knows?"

Holmgren went on to express hope that studies now being conducted will shed more definitive light; that he believed that size, speed, armor-like equipment and the unyielding glass and boards of modern arenas have all led to an increased frequency of concussions leaguewide.

"Is the equipment overprotective and is it hurting players now?" he said. "I think it is.

"I'm really dating myself, but going back, if a guy didn't feel good, it could be a number of things. Maybe he got the flu coming on. Now we look at everything under the microscope. Especially if a guy is hit in the head. I think we're very careful with these guys, and we should be. Because obviously they are very valuable assets."

He's a good guy, the Flyers GM, and his handling of this situation was conscientious after that initial misstep. That he endorses Kelly's advice is laudable, as well, even if he expressed faint hope that Gagne could return for a playoff run - hope that Gagne shot down minutes later.

"I won't be back this year," he said.

The plan is for him to do nothing for a month or two, then ease back into light exercise as spring becomes summer. Kelly told Gagne if he did that, there's a chance the concussion will heal and his career will resume unimpeded.

That's how it went for Kariya. Mark Recchi, his career once endangered from recurring concussions, is still playing, too, and Sharks forward Jeremy Roenick, another former Flyer with head troubles, was talking before last night's game about playing yet another season. They were careful. They were smart. And they are now, large objects in Gagne's rearview mirror.

"I'm 27," he said. "I hope I still have a long career ahead of me. Yeah, I want to play this year. But I want to play for the next 10 years."


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