The Big Issue: NHL dealing with new era of concussions

His eyes glazed over, Flyers center Danny Briere was helped around the bowels of Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., by a concerned doctor. His walk was slow. He looked lost.

The two-time All-Star who’s been blessed with speed and skill but not much size has been concussed before, but never like this.

Now 34 and in his 14th NHL season, Briere is dealing with lingering symptoms for the first time.

Almost two weeks later, Briere was having good and bad days. Finally, he’s returned to the lineup after missing six games. His symptoms are now gone after getting creamed three times on Jan. 21 by New Jersey defenseman Anton Volchenkov.

“The thing that was frustrating was I’ve survived for 15 years in this league avoiding big hits like I took that day,” Briere said.

It has become a league-wide trend, as Briere’s is one of more than 70 documented concussions in the NHL this season, six of them Flyers players.

Some have called it an epidemic, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t seem overly concerned. In a recent interview with NHL Network, Bettman speculated that the increased numbers are based on better medical diagnosis and extra caution.

“Obviously, it’s better for the players, but there’s still so much that’s unknown about them,” Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. “You look around the league, there’s not only a lot of players [concussed], but a lot of big-name players. That’s not good for the sport. There’s nothing that you can do. There’s no magic wand, magic potion. It just takes time.”

The Flyers were fortunate young stars Claude Giroux and Matt Read recovered quickly from recent concussions, but captain Chris Pronger was declared done for the season by December. Pronger’s concussion symptoms, thought to be triggered by a stick to the eye in October, remain bad enough that he hasn’t been seen by teammates since the Flyers’ Christmas party.

This is proof that no one can predict how bad concussions can be despite developments in medical treatment.

For instance, James van Riemsdyk’s recent concussion came as a surprise because it couldn’t be traced to one big head shot, but now he has missed 11 games.

“I was always wondering before when I saw guys with concussions,” Briere said. “How does it really feel when you’re in a fog? Now I know you’re not quite yourself.”

Enforcers’ suicides shook up NHL

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren recently said, “Concussions are like fingerprints,” in that no two are alike. In the case of Flyers forward Matt Read, he missed three games and hasn’t felt symptoms since.

But some aren’t as lucky as Read. If concussions aren’t treated properly or players come back to the lineup too soon, it can have long-lasting effects like headaches, light and noise sensitivity and even depression. Last summer was especially painful for the NHL, when a few players died, including New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard.

Boogaard, 28, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, which is caused by repeated blows to the head. He died of a drug and alcohol overdose.

“The mental health part of it — I didn’t know — the individuals that have it, it’s a scary thing,” said Flyers left winger Jody Shelley, who attended Boogaard’s funeral. He fought Boogaard six times in his career. “Mental health in professional sports, it used to be not cool, not macho to talk about your feelings. Us as athletes we have a good platform to help and to make it aware that it’s OK to ask someone how they’re feeling.”

Winnipeg Jets tough guy Rick Rypien died in August at the age of 27 from what was later confirmed as a suicide. Former player turned analyst Wade Belak was found dead in August as well. The 35-year-old hanged himself in a Toronto hotel. All of these players suffered from depression, and Boogaard and Rypien both had confirmed concussions.

After taking hits, real fight begins

According to a 2008 study from the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University, depression among the general population is around 5 percent. When head trauma, such as concussions, is factored in, the prevalence of depression skyrockets to 40 percent.

Not only is there no cure for depression, but as Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said “There’s no magic wand, no magic potion [for treating concussions]. It just takes time.”

There are programs for players who struggle with mental health, although it may seem like a form of weakness to be forthcoming about that sensitive topic.

“As teammates, you’ve got to be realistic with what people are going through,” Flyers winger Jody Shelley said. “The biggest thing is for us to ask someone who looks down, or is feeling down or you know is down to not ignore it. And the person that feels that way, you have to be able to take someone on your team and friends and say, ‘This is how I’m feeling. I need help.’ We’re trying to promote that. We’re trying to do that throughout the community.”

The Flyers have worked in conjunction with the Minding Your Mind Foundation, an organization that makes presentations to schools in an effort to “improve the lives of adolescents with mental health issues by eliminating the negative attitudes and behaviors perpetuated by stigma of mental health problems.”

‘It’s been a lot of trauma’

Lauren Pronger, who has been a visible part of the city’s fashion scene this year, gave a somber account of what her husband is battling in an interview with CSNPhilly last month during a charity event for Flyers’ wives. Here are two excerpts that make up a majority of the short interview:

“It’s a tough go at home. We’re going day-to-day right now. Good days, bad days. It’s been a lot of trauma. We’re just praying right now. He’s battling. He wants to be out there more than anybody. It’s tough for all of us watch him go through this, too.”

“I think any player that has been concussed, several times, they will have that commonality of saying whatever a good day, bad day, well, un, well, fortunately, I can’t say what that feels like, but for those guys, they say ‘today was a good day. Today was a bad day.’ And I see that in Chris. I can tell, you know what, it was not a good day today. Unfortunately, he’s not here tonight. Breaks his heart. Breaks my heart.”

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