Paul Martin’s Handling of Head Injury Clouded by Poor Performance

Earlier today, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe tweeted some disturbing information about Penguins defenseman Paul Martin:

Josh Yohe ‏@JoshYohe_Trib:

“Pens D Paul Martin just told me that he played the first three games against the Flyers with concussion-like symptoms.”

 “Martin said nothing to trainers until after Game 3. At that point, he was shut down for the rest of the series.”

 “Martin is fully recovered from the concussion and is working out every day in Minnesota.”

“Martin said the concussion took place at some point in Game 1, but he isn’t sure precisely when.”

Yohe later elaborated on Martin’s injury and prospective future with the Penguins in a story you can see here.

In Yohe’s article, he quoted Martin saying the following:

“I wasn’t feeling well during Game 1,” Martin said. “But I never said anything to the trainers. I didn’t feel well in Game 2. Then, after Schenn hit me in Game 3, I felt really bad but still finished the game. The next night, I felt worse. I talked to our trainers then, and told them about the symptoms. That was it. They shut me down.”

“The whole thing was tough,” he said. “I took a test and supposedly did fine. But with what had happened with Kris and with Sid’s (Sidney Crosby’s) problems, I think they were being overly-cautious.”

This should upset every Penguins fan.

My No. 1 criticism of the NHL the past couple of years has been the epidemic of concussion problems that has struck pretty much every team in the league. The main problem I’ve had is how the league has been inconsistent with its punishment of head shot offenders. I’ve also taken issue with the fact that players have not changed how they hit others on the ice; head shots are still happening at a high rate and both the league and its players need to make changes to make the game safer.

But in Paul Martin’s case, I’m not mad at the league nor an offending player.

I’m upset with Paul Martin.

Martin plays on a team that has been at the forefront of the concussion debate for two years. Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby spent two seasons dealing with a head injury and as the face of the league, he garnered plenty of attention for it. He was part of the reason the NHL adopted changes to Rule 48, the rule that deals with the penalization of head shots.

Not only did the Penguins have to suffer through a slow recovery from Crosby, they also faced a similar situation with star defenseman Kris Letang. Letang suffered a concussion on Nov. 26 after taking a big open ice hit from Montreal Canadians forward Max Pacioretty, but returned later in the same game. His symptoms became worse over the next few days and he ended up missing 21 games because of them. Later in the season, he dealt with concussion symptoms yet again after taking a hit to the head by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom.

So the fact that Paul Martin played through the pain and tried to ignore concussion symptoms over a three-game span baffles me. He, as well as every other NHL player, is surely aware of how serious a head injury can be. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage that may cause major problems for the rest of a players life — and eventually end it. One only has to look as far as Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Eric and Brett Lindros, Michel Goulet, Brian Bradly, Nick Kypreos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Matthew Barnaby, Paul Comrie, Keith Primeau and Marc Savard to understand how devastating a brain injury can be — not to mention the death of Derek Boogaard in 2011, which was caused by an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he recovered from a concussion.

Now, I also understand why Martin didn’t tell trainers about his concussion symptoms until they were debilitating. In professional sports — particularly in hockey and football — players are taught to have tough-guy mentality. They want to go out there and prove themselves, even if it comes at their own physical peril. After all, nothing says you’re a team player more than playing injured and team players get paid and respected.

And for Paul Martin, he had even more incentive to play injured than most players. He had a terrible year, one of the worst in his career. He wasn’t playing at a level anywhere near where a $5 million-per-year player should play. Because of his let-down season, Martin felt that he needed to play, regardless of injury, to prove that he was better than his season had shown. Going into the postseason, Martin had already begun to hear rumblings from fans and media that the Penguins should trade him in the offseason.

Yohe illustrates that here:

Martin was aware of negative talk from local fans and media outlets, and admitted this may have affected his performance.

“Coming from New Jersey,” Martin said, “it isn’t a fishbowl like Pittsburgh is. All it takes is for someone to write an article and people can jump on board. It’s hard to ignore it. When you’re a player, you notice things. I take pride in my job, and when people are telling you that you aren’t doing your job well, you don’t like it.”

Here’s another telling Martin quote from Yohe’s story:

“Do I think the same team is going to be back in Pittsburgh next year? No. But I hope I’m one of the guys who is back. I want to prove to myself and to reestablish to everyone the player that I am.”

Fans, other players and team management want to see players doing everything they can to prove themselves. Unfortunately, that mindset is quite valued. This tweet from Yohe proves that point:

“Obviously Martin’s judgment can be questioned for playing with the symptoms. Can’t question his commitment to the team, though.”

Martin may have thought he was helping the team by playing injured, but he was potentially doing the exact opposite. The old saying goes “Loose lips sink ships,” but when it comes to head injuries, it’s the sealed lips that hurt the most. No team will ever benefit from a player that is unable to get back onto the ice because of a devastating head injury. It looks like Martin got lucky because he doesn’t seem to have any long-term symptoms of his head shot.

It’s tough to say whether or not Martin will be in a Penguins sweater next season. Many people agree that he should be traded, but his high price tag will make it tough for Penguins GM Ray Shero to move him after the terrible season he had. Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in the AHL that could take Martin’s place next year, but if the Penguins can’t move him and are unwilling to eat the remainder of his contract, he may be on the blue line in Pittsburgh for another year. Ultimately, that will be what saves Martin from being traded, not his ill-advised effort to play through a head injury in the post season.

If Martin is a Penguin next season, I’ll expect him to be better on the ice.

But I’ll expect more from his decisions off of it.

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Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

There is still more than a month left before the Stanley Cup playoffs, but this season has already given us plenty of excitement and surprise. So I thought it’d be fun to visit 10 of the biggest surprises this season has offered up so far. So without further ado…

10. The Detroit Red Wings record setting 23-straight wins at home.

Why is this surprising?

I know at first, it isn’t that hard to believe. There is a strong tradition of winning in Detroit and fan support there is always amongst the top in the league. But consider how long this record lasted before this season. The last team to hold the record was the Boston Bruins (22 straight) during 1929-30 and ’30-31. In those days, professional hockey was a much different game. Stars played entire careers with one team and dynasties were more frequent. The current game is ripe with parity and regardless of who you play, there’s always a chance of suffering a loss.

You also have to consider that during the streak, Detroit didn’t have their No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard for a number of games during the final stretch. Howard’s fill-in – Joey MacDonald – won six straight to help break the record. For a backup to achieve a streak like that in pressure situations is pretty admirable.

9. The Buffalo Sabres are out of playoff contention.

Why is this surprising?

After last season, owner Terry Pegula vowed to spend heaps of money to turn Buffalo into a Stanley Cup contender. To sure up the blue line, he signed Christian Ehrhoff through 2021 at a cap hit of $4 million. He also brought on Robyn Regehr for about the same price through 2013. If that wasn’t enough, Pegula snapped up Ville Leino from Philadelphia to increase goal scoring at the hefty price of $4.5 million through 2017. It seemed that Buffalo was going to be a real contender in the 2011-2012 season. But so far, they have been a disappointment. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. The stars Pegula brought in are having down years and their best player, goaltender Ryan Miller, just hasn’t looked himself for much of the season. He has had some injury problems and the backup Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been able to help during Miller’s absences. The Sabres still have a shot at making the postseason, but the team really needs to turn up the intensity in its remaining 17 games.

8. Concussions are increasing at a high rate.

Why is this surprising?

The expansion of Rule 48, plain and simple. After losing the face of the league (Sidney Crosby) and a number of others to concussions last season, NHL officials met in the offseason and expanded rule 48 to eliminate the dangerous hits to the head that were causing many of the concussions in the NHL. Check out this quote from an article written by Dan Rosen of NHL.com last year:

“There were hits this year that we want eliminated from the game and we need to make sure we don’t end up back in this situation again next year,” said former NHL veteran Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “Without getting real specific, players and managers, and as my thinking would be, the Board of Governors and our Board, want to keep the physical play in and want to put some onus on guys being aware on the ice, but at the same time there are hits that we want to rid ourselves of. By expanding Rule 48, we’re hoping to be able to do that.”

That didn’t happen.

This is just a sample set of the players who suffered concussions this season so far: Sidney Crosby Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Michael Sauer, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Kris Letang, Chris Pronger,  Zbynek Michalek, Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Beagle, Milan Michalek, Brayden Schenn, Radek Martinek, Marek Zidlicky, Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Toews.

Brendan Shanahan, the director of player discipline, has handed out his fair share of suspensions stemming from concussion-causing hits this season, but obviously the suspensions and the rule expansion haven’t done enough to take head-shots out of the game.

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are the highest scoring team in the NHL.

Why is this surprising?

This past offseason, the Flyers gutted the scoring of their team. They sent their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. From 2007-2011, he averaged 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points per season. The Flyers also sent center Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets. From 2007-2011, he averaged 36 goals, 30 assists and 66 points per season. And not to go unnoticed, Philadelphia also lost Ville Leino to Buffalo. Last season, he scored 19 goals, 34 assists and 53 points.

It seemed that the Flyers were losing a ton of firepower to free up cap room to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But despite those players and their juicy numbers going elsewhere, the Flyers have still averaged 3.25 goals per game. They have scored 208 goals this season, six more than second ranked Boston. The Flyers have managed to climb to the top of the scoring list by getting help from a number of different players. Scott Hartnell leads the team with 31 goals, followed by Claude Giroux’s 23 and 22 from Wayne Simmonds. Currently, the Flyers have 10 players with 10 or more goals.

6. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Why is this surprising?

Last year, the Lightning was the team to beat in the postseason. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay surged to win three straight to win the series. Then they easily swept Washington in the second round. And in the Eastern Conference finals, it took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins seven games to finish off the Lightning. Steven Stamkos was coming into his own (and is currently the league leader in goals (47) and points (80)) and the veteran leadership of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is still there. So what is so different between this year’s team and last year’s?

Goaltending.

Somehow, Dwayne Roloson was outstanding last season with the Bolts, especially in the playoffs. Everyone predicted that the 41-year-old net minder was too old to carry the team, but that’s exactly what he did. Now, it seems that his age has finally caught up to him. Add in the fact that the Tampa Bay blueliners are relatively poor and haven’t provided their goalies with much help all season long. But even though the situation for Tampa has looked dismal for most of this season, they remain only two points out of a playoff spot and six points back of the Southeast Division lead.

5. The Florida Panthers may win the Southeast Division.

Why is this surprising?

The Panthers haven’t made the postseason in 10 years. It is the longest drought in all of hockey.  Although the Southeast Division is shaky at best, the winner will reap the benefits of a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers have led the division for the majority of the season. Over the past few weeks, the position has wavered, allowing both the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals to claim the top spot for a few games. But the fact remains that the Panthers have been the best team in that division for the majority of the season and they probably deserve to win the Southeast.

Florida has been led by the stellar scoring line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Collectively, the three have scored 58 goals, 83 assists and 141 points. And even though the goaltending staff had to mix and match because of injuries (starter Jose Theodore has started only 37 games) it has managed to win 30 games between Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom to post a solid .915 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.64. Those numbers may just be good enough for a division win come April.

4. The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Why is this surprising?

For starters, Vegas gave the Caps 7/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup before the season. The only other team given the same odds was the Vancouver Canucks, which came within a game of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware last season. The Caps were favorites for a win because of their scoring depth, with guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. They also had a solid defense with outstanding blue liner Mike Green and experienced veterans Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. Goaltending seemed like it could be an issue, but Washington management was confident that sending their previous starter Semyon Varlamov to Colorado wouldn’t hinder the 2011-2012 season because of the young talent of Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and acquired veteran Tomas Vokoun.

But unfortunately for Washington, this season has been sub-par at best. They are ranked 21 in goals against per game and they rank 13th in goal scoring. After an 8-0 start, Washington has won more than two games in a row only three times this season. But because the Capitals are in the weak Southeast Division, they still stand a chance at making the playoffs and are currently only one point out of the playoff picture.

3. The Flyers goaltending woes continue.

Why is this surprising?

They Flyers haven’t had a dependable goaltender for close to a decade. After last season, the Flyers organization decided it had enough and on June 23, 2011, Philadelphia signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The length of the contract was unprecedented for goalies in the NHL, but the Flyers had good reason to think it was a good move. Bryzgalov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and a top-5 finalist for the Hart Trophy in the 2009–10 NHL season. His career goals-against average was an admirable 2.39 and his career save percentage was .915. He had also won more than 150 games in less than 10 seasons in the NHL. When the Flyers signed him, he was easily in the top-10 of goalies in the NHL and perhaps even the top five.

But this season has not been kind to Bryzgalov.

Although he has 23 wins this season, his save percentage is a paltry .898 (the worst of his career) and his goals-against average is 2.79, the second worst of his career. Bryz hasn’t looked comfortable between the pipes in Philly this season. And in the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette elected to start last year’s No. 1 goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was clearly upset with the decision and it was a clear sign that the team’s confidence in him has wavered. Philly still has a solid team with the most scoring in the league, but if Bryzgalov cannot find his mojo before the playoffs, the Flyers Stanley Cup hopes just may fade away this season.

2. St. Louis is only two points back of the overall lead in the NHL

Why is this surprising?

St. Louis has been a perennial bust. They have not won a playoff game since 2003-2004 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001-2002. The team also has not qualified for the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But this season, after a 6-7 start that left St. Louis in 14th place in the Western Conference, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne in favor of Ken Hitchcock, a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience and the 4th Blues head coach since 2006.

The move paid off.

Currently St. Louis is in second in the Western Conference and only one point back from first place Vancouver. The Blues have one of the best defenses in all of the NHL and are the league leaders in goals allowed per game (1.89), have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (125) and are fourth in the NHL in plus/minus (plus-41). But best aspect of this team is between the pipes. Which leads us to…

1. Brian Elliott’s phenomenal year.

Why is this surprising?

No one could have predicted the year that goaltender Brian Elliott is having. His save percentage of .937 is second in the NHL and his goals-against average of 1.63 is tops in the league. The 26-year-old goalie also ranks third in shutouts with six. These stats are drastically better than his career numbers. In Elliott’s first four seasons – the majority of which were with the Ottawa Senators – his average save percentage was .912 and his goals-against average was 2.67. Elliott has only 20 wins this season, but that is only because he is effectively splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, who is having a tremendous season of his own. With these backstops holding the fort in St. Louis, who knows what the Blues will be capable of in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Here’s Waiting For You Kid

On September 7, 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins held a press conference to update the media and hopeful fans about the progress of their star captain Sidney Crosby. By this point, the concussion Crosby suffered on January 1 was old news. It had been a long seven months of hopeful anticipation for Crosby, the Penguins organization and fans of both. There had been setbacks in his recovery and no one was quite sure if Sid would ever lace up his skates again. But this press conference had a positive atmosphere. In fact, Dr. Ted Carrick – the Director of the Carrick Institute in Cape Canaveral, Fl. and one of Crosby’s neurologists – made an announcement that eased everyone’s worry. He said Christmas had come early for the young superstar.

“The reason this is Christmas is because Sid shouldn’t have any problems in the future…This case is one of the good outcomes.”

At this point, Sid wasn’t out of the woods yet, but it appeared that he was making a tremendous recovery and everyone’s doubts that his concussion may put an end to his career were basically washed away. Dr. Michael Collins, the Director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program had evaluated Crosby just a day before and he agreed with Carrick about the improvement that Sid had made.

“The progress first of all is excellent that Sid will not have any long term problems from this injury. In fact, I’m supremely confident in that issue,” he said. “His data is the best we’ve seen. It is approaching normal limits.”

Thirty-seven days later, Crosby was officially cleared for contact in practice and 39 days after that, he was cleared to play in his first game in more than 11 months. During that return, there were a bunch of things I was looking for. I wanted to see if he could maintain normal shift time on the ice. (He did). I wanted to see if he was still aggressive and adventurous near the net with or without the puck. (He was). But most of all, I wanted to see him get hit. And honestly, I wanted to see him take a rough blow to the upper body. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t hoping someone would target his head and cheap shot him, but I wanted to be reassured that he could go through a normal amount of blows during a typical game so that I could be sure Crosby would be the same as he always was while moving forward into the season. I’m sure that Sid himself felt the same urge.

Inside his mind, he wanted the same reassurance I did. After all, until he took some good shots, that doubt would linger somewhere deep down and the “what ifs” would remain. If he proved to himself and everyone else that the concussion was completely gone without any increased chance of return, it would be a weight off of his and everyone else’s shoulders. That would mean the time for worrying and frustration was gone, so Crosby could focus on the goal of winning another a Stanley Cup.

It indeed proved to be an emotional night for Crosby and everyone watching him at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Crosby scored four points with two goals and two assists and it was as though the concussion had never even happened. The city of Pittsburgh was whole again and Crosby was once more the main focus of NHL community.

But that optimism and positivity didn’t last long. Only seven games into the start of Crosby’s season, he suffered yet another setback. Following a 3-1 loss against the Boston Bruins, Sid began to experience headaches and he was shut down by the Penguins once more. Crosby wasn’t quite sure what had caused the return of his symptoms, but he speculated that a hit he took from Boston center David Krejci may have done it.

It remains unclear how badly Sid is feeling and the official report said that he did not suffer another concussion, just concussion-like symptoms. Crosby has passed the baseline testing (an ImPACT test), but he still has a headache and doesn’t feel right.

It is also unclear how long Crosby will be out. Currently, he is not practicing and it feels like his concussion situation has reverted back to the level it reached this past summer, when Penguins fans were supremely worried about the future of the best player in hockey.

Since sustaining a concussion through two hits last year –the first coming from Dave Steckel of the Capitals on January 1 and the second coming from Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning only a few days later – Crosby missed a total of 64 games between now and when he first left the ice, 41 games last season and 23 this season. The first concussion sure was disappointing, made worse by the Penguins’ early playoff exit in the first round of the playoffs, but I always felt that Crosby would fully rehabilitate himself and return to the ice at 100 percent. It looked as though he did, scoring 12 points in only eight games this season. But now, I’m not so sure Sid will ever be the same.

I believe Crosby will return sooner or later from the latest concussion symptoms because I’m an optimistic fan, but I now have a strong fear that any amount of contact may spur yet another re-occurrence of symptoms and Sid will continue to miss large chunks of games in both the long and short term. I’m also positive that Crosby does not want to go through the same strenuous rehabilitative process he went through this summer. Although the specifics of this rehab have never been truly revealed, during the September 7 press conference, Crosby’s doctors explained the process in some detail. “The brain allows you to know where you are in space and where space is in reference to you. In Sid’s case, that was not exactly correct,” Dr. Carrick said. “Areas in space were not in an appropriate grid to where he would perceive them, so we developed strategies to build him a new grid.”

Collins added that Sid had suffered a vestibular type of concussion (vestibular meaning the space and motion system of the brain.) “Sid’s vestibular system is better than anyone else’s,” Collins said. “That system makes Sid who he is… At this time, Sid has no vestibular symptoms.”

Crosby, the Penguins and his doctors handled the injury the best way they possibly could. Ray Shero, the general manager of the Penguins reiterated this fact numerous times during that press conference. But even though there was basically nothing else that could have been done for Crosby, his problems are flaring up once again and that’s very bad news.

Many questions were posed to Crosby and his doctors at the press conference, but one in particular caught my attention. Stan Savran, who covers the Penguins for Root Sports Pittsburgh, asked if there would come a point where there would be no evidence that an injury ever occurred and if Sid would be more susceptible to further head injuries, despite his recovery from this one. Collins answered back confidently. “Yes, there will be no evidence that this injury is there anymore. Our research and many others in this field understand that if you have full recovery, the outcomes are far less in terms of recidivism and problems reoccurring. And I expect that to occur in this case,” he said. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll see Sid have a very long and fruitful career.”

Taking that statement into account, as well as knowing that every precaution possible was taken for Crosby, I feel that his fate can only be determined by sheer luck. Now, I really have to question if a prior concussion can increase the chances you’ll suffer another one in the future.

I’ll keep an open mind of course, because I am a Penguins fan and a Crosby fan. So I’ll say that there is still a chance that Crosby is NOT concussion-prone, just unlucky.

There is also a tiny chance that Crosby had never taken a legitimately heavy shot to the brain in his career prior to the Steckel hit. That could indicate that his concussion tolerance was low to begin with and he had actually been lucky throughout all the hockey games he had ever played in before and had not taken any major contact to the head. Sid has said himself that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion before. This scenario is pretty much impossible, however. Hockey is a violent game and there’s no chance, in my opinion, that Crosby was lucky enough to avoid a shot to the head in all the years he’s played hockey. That means that Sid has almost definitely taken hits to his head, but none of them before Steckel’s were hard enough or direct enough to deliver a concussion.

Now that he fell victim to a big enough shot to his brain to concuss him, it seems likely to me that he simply does not have the tolerance to concussions that he did before Steckel. The Hedman hit may be evidence of that. Remember, the shot in the Winter Classic delivered the initial concussion, but Crosby didn’t miss any games because of it. He went on a few days later to play in the very next game four days after the Winter Classic against Tampa Bay. That is when he was hit by Hedman and he didn’t play another game that season. In my opinion, that goes to show that something permanent has occurred inside Crosby’s head. It may not be detectable, but there is some kind of switch that flipped in his brain that he cannot switch back. And hear me right, I’m not talking about some sort of mental fear that Crosby has. That’s not my point at all. I’m talking about a permanent physical condition that cannot be treated and cannot be cured. It is a bell that cannot be un-rung, so to speak.

During the summer press conference, Crosby’s doctors stated that he was “approaching normal.” So hypothetically, let’s say that today, Crosby is once again approaching normal. (Which I believe is unfortunately a little too optimistic.) Initially, it took a total of 75 days after the press conference for him to fully recover and return to action. That would mean that he would be cleared for contact in practice 37 days from now, which would put us at January 21. After another 39 days, he would be cleared to return to games, which would be on February 29 against the Dallas Stars. This scenario would leave only 19 games left in the regular season. In total, he would miss 55 regular season games. Last season, he missed 14 games LESS than that. So hypothetically, this season could ultimately prove to be even more frustrating than the last.

I can’t remember any other time in my life that I’ve ever wanted to be proven wrong so badly.

So I and the rest of the Penguins nation will wait with bated breath. There is no time table and there are no speculations. Again, the Penguins organization will take its time and do this whole thing the same way as before, the safe way and the right way. And hopefully—knock on wood, pull a four-leaf clover, pick up a heads-up penny and walk under a horseshoe—that pays off better than it did the first time.

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