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NHL to hire ‘concussion spotters’ to oversee player safety during games, report says

Pittsburgh Penguins player Sidney Crosby, seen in 2012, practices while recovering from a concussion and neck injury that sidelined him for most of the 2011-12 season. (Paul Chiasson/AP/The Canadian Press)

Like all contact sports, hockey is inherently dangerous. But now the NHL wants to make it safer by introducing independent “concussion spotters” at all its games this season. Canada’s TVA Sports reporter Renaud Lavoie first reported the news on Monday.

The new personnel will be present at all 30 NHL arenas, ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun confirmed with the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Monday. He added that 60 people will be hired in total — that’s two spotters per arena — with one spotter being used to monitor each team’s players. Only the designated spotter for a team will be able to communicate with the team’s bench about a possible problem. It is unclear whether the spotters will be able to talk to each other during the game should one of them happen to see an incident relating to the opposing team’s players.

The new protocol boasts some similarities to already existing practices in the NFL, but with one big difference. Unlike spotters in football, the new hires in hockey don’t need to have a medical background, according to Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski, who is skeptical of the new plan.

“Shouldn’t they be medically trained to give a diagnosis?” Wyshynski asked.

Deputy Commissioner Daly says no, reasoning that the spotters “aren’t evaluating the players or diagnosing whether or not they have a concussion,” and noting “that’s the job of the doctors and trainers.”

“All they are doing is alerting team medical staff where they witness or identify an incident where there is a visible sign of concussion,” Daly added. “Those signs aren’t ‘medical’ — they are objectively observable and they have already been precisely defined in the protocol.”

Concussion spotters in hockey aren’t new. Several teams have hired their own and they may continue to use those already hired, according to ESPN. In that case the independent, NHL-hired spotters will still be present in the arena during games, but their sole job will be to record incidents, which could later be used to compare with incidents the team’s spotter notes. They would not communicate with the team’s bench.

“The bottom line is that the new league spotters are going to increase documentation,” ESPN’s LeBrun writes.

While issues pertaining to head trauma haven’t gotten as much attention in hockey as they have in football, the consequences of concussions in the NHL have become increasingly apparent financially.

In May, the family of former player Steve Montador, who died in February at just 35, decided to sue the league for wrongful death, citing past head injuries that resulted in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. The disease, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, is associated with taking repeat hits to the head and can lead to depression and other behavioral changes, including increased suicidal tendencies and other causes of death.

[Montador’s family latest to file suit against NHL for wrongful death]

The disease was also cited in 2013, when the family of former player Derek Boogaard filed their own wrongful death suit against the league. Boogaard died at age 28 in 2011.