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Researcher examines how NHL concussions occur, when and to whom

Toronto, September 19, 2011

Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild and Jussi Jokinen of the Carolina Hurricanes battle for the puck Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild and Jussi Jokinen of the Carolina Hurricanes battle for the puck during a game last season. (Photo: Aleksi Stenberg, Wikimedia)

By Leslie Shepherd

Most concussions in the National Hockey League occur during the first period, new research has found.

That could be because players and coaches are trying to set the tone of the game or because players have more energy and adrenaline at the start of a game, according to Michael Hutchison, a researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Just as many concussions occur in the open ice as at the perimeters of the rink, he found. Forwards suffer more concussions than defencemen, perhaps because there are more of them and they have the puck more often.

Hutchison was one of several researchers, physicians, hockey players and journalists who spoke Saturday (Sept. 17) at OuCH! (Outcomes Following Hockey Concussions), a half-day conference at St. Michael’s Hospital that examined the causes, treatment and prevention of concussions in hockey.

The goal of the conference, hosted by Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon and director of the hospital’s Injury Prevention Research Centre, was to educate the public about the growing number of concussions being sustained by young hockey players.

About 15,000 to 20,000 children and youth suffer a concussion in hockey in a year, although experts say the number is probably much higher because many concussions are not diagnosed or reported.

This was also the first conference in Toronto to address the psychiatric issues related to head injuries and hockey.

Dr. Cusimano also heads the Canadian Brain Injury and Violence Research Team, a national research project on identifying and modifying the risk factors for traumatic brain injuries such as concussions and the role violence plays in some of those injuries.

Hutchison, who is now a researcher on that team, studied close to 200 concussions in the NHL between 2007 and 2010 for his PhD dissertation in rehabilitation science at the University of Toronto.

He also found that most of those concussions were caused by a direct blow to the head from a shoulder, elbow or glove.

His research was shared with NHL general managers and executives before they introduced Rule 48 that outlawed specific targeted hits to the head in 2010.

“This project allowed us to provide objective data that supports what many hockey minds believe,” said Hutchison, who also coaches minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and is assistant coach for the University of Toronto’s varsity men’s hockey team.

“It provides the decision-makers with objective information to use in policy making.”

Hutchison conducted his research under the supervision of Dr. Paul Comper, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Toronto Rehab Institute and the consultant neuropsychologist to the National Hockey League Player’s Association.

Dr. Comper also spoke at Saturday’s conference, as did:

  • Dr. Shree Bhalero, a psychiatrist at St. Michael’s who does research on acute and chronic traumatic brain injury
  • Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon at Toronto’s University Health Network and founder of the safety and advocacy group ThinkFirst
  • Former NHL player Rob Zamuner, now with the National Hockey League Players Association
  • Karolina Urban, captain of the women’s varsity hockey team at the University of Toronto, and one of a growing number of female athletes who has suffered a concussion
  • Bruce Tennant, creator of

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