Phil Sheridan: Flyers-Penguins series bringing concussion issue to head
Maybe the concussions are starting to explain themselves. That was one possible conclusion from listening to the Flyers after Sunday's anarchic Game 3 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. From veterans Danny Briere and Claude Giroux to rookies Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, the general reaction was a big shrug. That's hockey, that's the playoffs, no big deal.
Maybe the concussions are starting to explain themselves.
That was one possible conclusion from listening to the Flyers after Sunday's anarchic Game 3 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. From veterans Danny Briere and Claude Giroux to rookies Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, the general reaction was a big shrug. That's hockey, that's the playoffs, no big deal.
Except that Briere, Giroux, and Schenn all missed time with concussion issues during the regular season. Couturier was out after taking a puck on the side of his head. No concussion was diagnosed, at least not publicly, but trusting the Flyers or any other NHL team on that matter is as naive as all four men sounded in the wake of Sunday's mayhem.
They are all missing a teammate, their captain as a matter of fact, because of concussions. Chris Pronger may never play again.
During the game, former Flyers captain Keith Primeau was shown on the scoreboard screen. He's probably just some old retired guy to the kids, but Primeau is 40, just three months older than Jaromir Jagr. He was 34 - the age Briere is right now - when concussions ended his brilliant career early.
Sometime Tuesday, we'll learn the punishments meted out by the NHL for head-hunting Penguins Arron Asham and James Neal. It is well past time for the league to start taking this issue seriously and creating serious consequences. This year's playoff tournament is devolving into a series of outrageous attacks on star players and endless debates over the inconsistency of the NHL's enforcement of its own rules.
But there is only so much that can be legislated. At some point, the players are going to have to take some responsibility for their actions and for their disrespect of opponents and the very game they are all playing.
Bear in mind, the madness Sunday was started by Sidney Crosby, who has spent most of the last year dealing with the fallout from concussions. Did he take any head shots himself? No. But as captain of the Penguins, he created an environment where his teammates felt empowered or even obligated to deliberately attempt to injure skilled Flyers.
Asham attacked Schenn. Neal launched himself at a defenseless (and puckless) Couturier, then took a shot at Giroux's head. Giroux seemed fine after the game, but he looked dizzy and off balance immediately after the hit.
There is a long-standing code in hockey that governs behavior on the ice. We're not talking about that. It is one thing for a couple of tough guys to square up and fight in order to settle some perceived score or defuse building tensions. It is another for players to try to cause brain injuries to opposing stars, as Neal did to Giroux and as New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin did to Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson on Saturday.
There is a disconnect here. Briere and Giroux and Schenn were all smiling as if Sunday's high jinks were good clean fun. Every one of them is one hit from joining Pronger and Primeau on the long list of great players whose careers were destroyed by concussions.
The same disconnect is at work in the NFL. Roughly 1,100 former players have joined class-action lawsuits against the league for its mishandling of concussions. Everyone has heard the stories of Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, two former stars who killed themselves to end the depression and pain that imprisoned them after concussion-plagued careers.
And yet there is no shortage of players willing to launch themselves at opponents. The New Orleans Saints were just busted for an organized system that rewarded the injuring of opposing players. Their defensive coordinator was taped telling his guys to seek out an opponent with a history of concussions.
"Kill the head, and the body will die."
The NFL came down hard on the Saints and has issued numerous fines for dangerous hits over the last few years. Cynics suggest the league is merely trying to shield itself from the ex-players' lawsuits. Maybe so. But isn't that better than doing what the NHL is doing - letting the problem get worse?
So yes, it would help if NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan came down hard on Asham and Neal and every other player who shows clear intent to injure. By focusing on the outcome - the actual damage inflicted - the league ultimately encourages players to keep testing the boundaries.
And it would be a good sign if the Flyers opted not to use Game 4 to wreak vengeance for Sunday's madness. They'd be better off eliminating the Penguins, earning some rest, and improving their chances of contending for the Stanley Cup.
Heavy penalties may start the culture change that is necessary, but only the players can really make that change last. It all seems so obvious. Maybe all the concussions have left them too foggy to figure it out for themselves.
Read his columns at philly.com/philsheridan