Brooks Orpik lay on the ice, alone in a corner of the rink, clutching his head with both hands. He had been left there after a violent collision with James Neal, who had launched into him in reverse, just before Orpik could launch himself, at full speed, into Neal’s back. Orpik took the worst of it. His skates came off the ground, and he landed hard. It was scary, even for teammates who have witnessed Orpik deliver and absorb abuse and always take his next shift. At the whistle, goalie Braden Holtby skated over to check on him.
Both the NHL and the Washington Capitals had to determine whether Orpik’s night needed to end right then, in the second period of Saturday’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. He has a history of concussions, he stayed down on the ice after taking the hit, and he appeared to claim in an argument with officials that he had been hit in the head. The NHL makes teams responsible for removing concussed or possibly concussed players, and it has spotters in arenas and in a control center in New York to watch for players who may have suffered head injuries.
Orpik returned to the game for his next shift, which immediately prompted another layer of criticism from many in the sport’s cognoscenti toward the league’s handling of concussions. It would be reckless to assume Orpik suffered a concussion, and afterward teammates and officials insisted he only had the wind knocked out of him. But the decision not to remove him for at least further testing quickly become another data point for a league already facing heat – and litigation – regarding how it handles brain trauma.
The league’s stance would presumably be this: Replays showed Neal did not hit Orpik directly in the head, so there was no requirement to remove him under the league’s protocol, which is collectively bargained with the NHL Players’ Association. Despite the optics of the play – Orpik whirling in the air, his head snapping upon contact, staying down afterward – it did not fit the criteria of a hit that necessitates a player’s exclusion. Debate the protocol if you want, but the protocol was not violated.
“For me, that was simply a ‘slow to get up,’ which is a discretionary removal,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in an email. “[The] trainer determines player’s status after speaking to him. There was no visible sign that dictated mandatory removal in that instance.”
Orpik did sit for the final minutes of the third period and was not available to reporters after the game because he was receiving treatment, according to a Capitals spokesman. One person familiar with the situation said Orpik’s absence had nothing to do with the concussion protocol, and his treatment was for an unrelated injury. The Capitals were not concerned about Orpik’s status for Game 4.
“He was fine,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I can’t go into that, but he was fine.”
The NHL has drawn the ire of critics for how it confronts concussions. A lawsuit brought by former players has surfaced a series of damning internal NHL emails about how it treated concussions. Ann McKee, who heads the CTE Center at Boston University, recently told Canadian network TSN that the NHL is “in the dark ages” regarding concussions and called its stance toward them “laughable” and “ridiculous.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he does not believe there is proof of a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease several deceased hockey players have been shown to have. In a news conference before the series, Bettman was asked whether he still believed that.
“I’m not going to start another news cycle,” Bettman answered. “There’s nothing new on the subject.”
Seated next to Bettman, Daly added: “This is not the commissioner’s view. It’s the science view. So all we’re doing is reiterating what the scientists have concluded, which is there’s not enough information to draw that link.”
With that background, Orpik chased a puck into the corner in the second period, after Neal had reached it first. Orpik lined up Neal for a hit, but Neal caught him out of the corner of his eye and backed into him. Orpik spun in the air, landed and stayed down.
“Yeah, it’s scary,” Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “When he tried to get up and kind of went down, you could kind of see it was more wind [knocked out of him] than concussion. It eased our minds a little bit. We knew he was going to be back. He’s as tough as anyone. It was a pretty heavy hit, but we knew he’d shake it off.”
Orpik, a rugged, 37-year-old defenseman, skated back to the bench under his own power. Once there, he protested the no-call on the play by gesturing toward his head and yelling at an official, apparently claiming Neal had hit him in the head. While that could be seen as evidence he had potentially suffered a head injury, the league’s protocol takes into account the means that players use to coerce referees into calling penalties on opponents. A hit to the head would have meant punishment for Neal, one of Vegas’s best players.
Orpik’s history added another reason for concern. In 2013, when with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik missed two weeks after he suffered a concussion owing to a vicious incident. As players scrummed during a whistle, Boston’s Shawn Thornton tripped Orpik from behind and landed two gloved punches as he lay on the ice. The blows knocked Orpik unconscious. The NHL suspended Thornton 15 games. Orpik later reported horrible headaches and memory loss; he said he had no recollection of Thornton’s assault. Orpik also missed three playoff games in 2016 after Philadelphia’s Ryan White crunched him against the boards.
Still, Trotz never worried whether Orpik would have to be pulled – “not at all,” he said. “It was one of those reverse hits. When I first looked at it, I thought their player reverse-hit him but jumped up. I think he got more stunned than anything. It knocked the wind out of him a little bit. [Neal] is really good at it. I’ve seen him do a few times. I’m not too concerned. He’s fine.”
The Capitals’ reaction to Orpik afterward displayed another problem the NHL has with handling concussions: the ethos of the players. Teammates roundly praised Orpik’s toughness in staying in the game. Alex Ovechkin singled out Orpik as an example of Washington’s grit during its 3-1 victory. Last year, remote spotters removed Edmonton star Connor McDavid from a game, and Oilers players fumed at the decision. The league, many would argue, has a responsibility to protect its players from themselves. But the players also have a voice in the NHL’s policies.
Afterward, the Capitals expressed admiration for Orpik. If they had any concerns about the collision, they focused on the legality of Neal’s hit.
“I think the guy left his feet pretty good,” forward Lars Eller said. “I think the rulebook shows something about leaving your feet when you hit. I remember what it is, but somebody I’m sure can look it up.”
The Capitals plan for Orpik to play in Game 4. By then, the debate may still be ongoing whether he should have finished Game 3, and what his staying in the game says about the NHL’s handling of concussions.
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