Photo credit: J Pat Carter
Less than twenty minutes into the contest between the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers, the Caps’ big trade deadline acquisition, veteran winger Martin Erat, went awkwardly into the boards courtesy of a reckless shove by hulking young defenseman Eric Gudbranson. A few anxious seconds later, Caps fans were holding their breath as Marty was helped off the ice by his teammates, clearly favoring his right leg. Later on, the team referred to it as a “lower body injury.” Nothing to be happy about, of course, but it could have been so much worse, especially given Erat’s extensive concussion history.
“Wait! What concussion history?,” you may ask, and rightfully so. After all, Marty has been an NHLer for over a decade, and in all that time the Nashville Predators (his team since his debut in 2003) released exactly zero statements mentioning Martin Erat having a concussion. The ubiquitous “upper body injury” appears numerous times, but never a concussion. In fact, a Google search for “Martin Erat concussion” yields references to just one suspected case – an injury Erat suffered during the last World Championship. So, no worries then, right?
But what if someone actually asked Marty? Because someone did.
Last June, Russian sports portal sports.ru published an exclusive interview with Martin Erat. When reporter Maria Mikhalenko mentions this nasty late hit on Marty by a known cheap-shot artist Jarko Ruutu in the first round of 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the conversation takes an interesting turn:
Maria Mikhalenko: Did Ruutu’s hit make an impact?
Martin Erat: I felt alright after a while. It happened during last year playoffs. It wasn’t a dirty hit. But he hit me directly in the head, and I got a concussion.
Mikhalenko: How many concussions have you had during your career?
Erat: Possibly four or five. Probably, the worst one was the one that happened last year, because I had had another concussion not long before. So when Ruutu hit me, that was the second one. I had headaches for a long time afterwards. But I played through the playoffs, and then returned [to Nashville] during summer for the recovery. We have good doctors in Nashville. They always know what to do with me.
Four or five concussions, and just one known to have happened outside the NHL.
And the concussion Marty refers to as “probably the worst?” That one happened about a month after the NHL proudly announced its official, new and improved, Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management. Erat missed just two games before returning to the Preds lineup for their second round series against the Canucks. The Predators conveniently labelled that one an “upper body injury” – maybe just to be consistent with the “upper body injury” Erat suffered two weeks earlier– the one Erat said caused him to miss the last two games of the regular season.
A long list of Erat’s upper body frailties can be found on the Hockey News site under the Transactions tab.
I don’t meant to single out Nashville. Unfortunately, hiding behind the fig leaf of “upper body injury” is a norm throughout the NHL. Just a few days ago, Maple Leafs’ head coach Randy Carlyle shared his personal theory about concussions: the biggest problem with concussions is calling them concussions, which is a “bad word.” This sad comedy act came right after star forward Joffrey Lupul had to be helped off the ice in the game against the Flyers. Lupul appeared unsteady on his skates and disoriented as he left the ice surface – but hey, as long as we don’t call it a concussion, he should be fine, right?
Take a quick look at the NHL players currently listed as out with an upper body injury– 19 players. (The Predators and the Blue Jackets lead the pack with three guys each.) Are all of these 19 guys concussed? No. But as long as teams are allowed to hide behind such an ambiguity, all the NHL’s efforts to combat the concussion epidemic will just be lip service. The league and its players need transparency.