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Sidney Crosby shows NHL needs to overhaul concussion protocol rules

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This isn’t the first time concussion spotters have been rendered meaningless. It needs to stop.

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Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There were two thoughts running through my head watching an incredible series between the Penguins and Capitals over the past week: (a) I hope this thing never ends; (b) I hope this things ends immediately for the sake of Sidney Crosby, who apparently needs more people looking out for him.

Crosby took the brunt of a brutal head-first crash into the boards during Game 6 on Monday, just days after being diagnosed with a concussion from a hit to the head. The Pittsburgh superstar has a history of head injuries, yet he returned to playoff hockey — where the referees swallow their whistles and let “hockey plays” happen with aplomb — to try to win another Stanley Cup.

It could be seen as brave, heroic, courageous, and tough. It could also be seen as reckless, dangerous, and failing to give proper attention to the single most important thing of all: health. Actual, long-term ability to live the life you want to live.

Watching Crosby, days after a major head injury, get slammed with the weight of hundreds of pounds into a hard surface, my only hope was that the NHL would treat the situation like the major issue that it is.

Instead, we got an excuse because of the rulebook.

“Depending on the mechanism of injury, ‘slow to get up’ does not trigger mandatory removal,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told USA TODAY. “The protocol has to be interpreted literally to mandate a removal. ‘Ice’ as compared to ‘boards’ is in there for a reason. It’s the result of a study on our actual experiences over a number of years. ‘Ice’ has been found to be a predictor of concussions -- ‘boards’ has not been.”

Daly also said that concussion spotters somehow don’t consider the injury history of each player when making decisions.

So let’s think about this for a second. Daly’s explanation here is essentially that concussion spotters — the people designated by the league to pull players from games, taking that choice away from guys potentially suffering head injuries — don’t have that authority when the potential injury is caused by the boards. If a guy gets hit and slams his head on the ice as a result? Pull him! But if that same kind of contact occurs against the boards, like we saw with Crosby, apparently spotters are too toothless to have the power to do anything. Even if he’s an MVP-caliber player with a history of concussions.

It makes no sense by any sort of logic. Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said as much to USA Today.

“Any head contact is a possible mechanism of injury,” Nowinski said. “I can't believe we have to say that in 2017.”

The NHL should know this by now, but it’s create an obtuse, confusing system that allows for myriad excuses to keep players on the ice.

Blackhawks fans saw this first-hand in the spring when goaltender Corey Crawford took a heat-seeking missile from Shea Weber, arguably the hardest shooter in the game, directly to the head. Crawford came up woozy and clearly needed to undergo post-concussion protocol, but he stayed in the game after a brief check from a trainer.

And of course Crawford (or Crosby) will want to stay in the game. They’re trained from young ages to withstand pain and put forth their best effort on the ice. But this was before the emergence of more information on how head injuries impact long-term health. The potential consequences of playing through repeated significant head trauma is something the league badly needs to take more seriously.

Establishing post-concussion protocol was a good start, but it’s clear the rules need to be re-written to give concussion spotters greater authority, and players and coaches less influence. These post-concussion tests may not be perfect — NFL players have admitted to cheating to beat the tests, so that’s possible in hockey, too — but having so many loopholes shows it’s little more than window dressing in the end.

That’s clear when Crosby, the best player in the world, can take a devastating hit just days after a concussion, only for the league to respond by noting the intricacies of the rulebook leave their hands tied. That’s an excuse, and a weak one, for an issue that’s going to continue having a major impact on NHL’s business, not only in terms of losing big names to injury, but the ongoing optics of saying things like hitting your head on one surface is better than another. There’s gotta be a better way.