EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Marcus Kruger understands it, even if he didn’t like how it affected him at the time.
When officials told Kruger he had to undergo concussion protocol late in the second period on Saturday night, he wasn’t happy. He thought he was fine. The Blackhawks were trailing 2-1 and facing some critical penalty kills, one of Kruger’s specialties. He wanted to be out there, wanted to be helping the team, wanted to have the say on whether or not he had to get checked out by doctors.
"I’d rather have it in my hands so I can choose whether I can leave the game or not. But the league doesn’t think that’s the best,” said Kruger at Thursday’s practice. “I can see why they do that, too, but obviously [Wednesday] I wasn’t happy about it.”
The NHL made some changes to their concussion protocol this season; “central spotters” that can order a player off the ice if they feel that player needs to be checked. Kruger had already left the ice once prior to the officials telling him to leave again.
“I got out twice, so… but I know the league does that to protect the players, which is a good thing,” Kruger said. “Maybe I wasn’t happy with how it was. We were down, killing penalties and stuff like that. But the guys did a great job and I got back as quick as I could.”
It’s not a surprise to hear Kruger put the team first. We’ve seen athletes, especially hockey players, do it on a nightly basis. We’ll watch them go down in heaps after hits or blocking shots and we laud them when they return almost immediately after either one. How often have all of us – yes, I include myself – talk about how much of a warrior Niklas Hjalmarsson is for all the pain he goes through blocking a shot, only to be right back out there the next shift?
We’re not talking, however, about body bumps and bruises, cuts and welts, or even broken bones. Granted, those could certainly have their residual effects. But head injuries are a different matter. We’ve seen what’s happened to former players who suffered through them during their careers. We’ve seen careers cut short. We’ve seen lives cut short. There’s a time when prudence has to usurp pride, and this is absolutely one of those instances.
[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
Vinnie Hinostroza understands it. The rookie forward spent two consecutive days in bed after suffering a concussion against the Winnipeg Jets at the start of this trip.
“I think it’s important to obviously keep the players safe,” said Hinostroza, who returned vs. Vancouver. “Your brain is such a serious thing. You don’t want to mess around with that. It stinks at the time when you have to leave the ice, but in the long run it’s definitely beneficial to make sure he’s OK.”
Former Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp appears to have changed his thoughts on the protocol, too. Sharp suffered a concussion earlier this season and missed 14 games. Sharp told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that, “when I took the hit, I assumed I was coming back in the game. Now that I look back on it and what happened, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.”
Exactly. And Sharp’s comments remind us something else about concussions: maybe the effects are immediate, maybe they’re not. Maybe Sharp felt just fine right after that hit – Los Angeles’ Brayden McNabb checked Sharp, who then went head-first into the boards. Sharp did get up and play, taking a shot on goal before he was pulled.
Hockey players endure so much, play through so many things. It’s just in their makeup. But nobody’s questioning a player’s toughness when it comes to head injuries. At least nobody should.
Kruger didn’t like getting pulled at a critical time but he understands his health comes first. There’s a lot at stake, be it a longer, healthier career or a longer, healthier life. Another check just cost Kruger a few shifts. It could ultimately save him and others a lot more in the end.