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 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.

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  • Jose

    100% agreed, the NHL needs to really push to stop this nonsense and enforce teams to disclose this kind of things and make the players go through the necessary steps, which is not missing just a practice and a game before coming back. I know they’re not a favourite around here nor are they a team I really like, but the league could learn a lot from how they handle concussions in Pittsburgh. It’ll do good for teams and players alike in the long run.

    But I also think the NHL needs to crank it up on suspensions for dirty hits. A concussion like the one Patty Eaves (Red Wings) sustained last season from a slap shot is just unfortunate, and very bad luck for Patty, but head shots, cheap shots and boarding incidents should mean automatic suspension until the player you concusses got back. That would be a very easy and quick way to take those dirty hits away from the game and adequately punish offenders.

  • Another problem is credibility when it comes to transactions. If GMGM knew that Erat had 5 concussions in his career, I wonder whether he would have agreed to trade away the “future” of the Caps organization (his words, not mine). This makes the trade even more upsetting.

  • The thing is — how severe is four or five concussions? Since it’s not tracked by the NHL, does that put a player at significant risk? I’ve had 3 concussions (from Varsity Basketball my senior year at FHS), and I’m mostly fine — well, minus me always wanting to write about astronomy on a hockey blog.

    GMGM has said in the past that he doesn’t like reporting any injuries because players target others when they know they’re hurt. It’s a sad realty, but with concussions, it’s something that needs more transparency. The NHL has a tremendous amount of work to do in this regard.

    In regards to the Forsberg trade, I still don’t like it. Pierre LeBrun talked about some of the reasons apparently why the Capitals made the deal.

    “And yes, perhaps GM George McPhee could have gotten more had he waited until the summer to shop Forsberg fully to the league. You see, I believe the Caps were going to trade Forsberg at some point no matter what, internally souring on the prospect, a player they no longer viewed as a top center in the making.

    Scouts I’ve spoken with have mixed opinions. Some still view him as a top center in the making, at least a No. 2, but others are concerned by his foot speed. The latter is what concerned Washington. ”

    I remember when then Caps GM Dave Poile left Andrew Brunette unprotected in the Expansion Draft for some of the same reasons. He was drafted by, ironically, the Preds.

    Brunette ended up playing over 1,100 career NHL games and had 700+ career points. Yikes.

    We’ll see how things play out, but Forsberg is such a multi-tooled player. He’s super smart, can score anywhere, is a great forechecker. The list goes on and on. I think at 18 he’s more well-rounded player than Kuznetsov is now.

    Let’s hope Erat can get healthy and make some noise for the rest of the year.

  • serpent

    Great investigative reporting there, Igor. Caps front office should consult with you BEFORE these trades happen.

  • I understand why teams want to hide the extent of the injury exactly (to prevent a team from targeting the exact area of injury when the player returns), but internally, teams should be upfront about it to the league office for the players’ own healthy. That is, the team can say publicly that the injury is “upper-body”, but to the league office, the team needs to say exactly what the problem is.

  • For the record, I like the trade. Both before and after 🙂

  • I think it depends on the severity of the concussions…. I’ve had 3 in my life, and i *think* i’m pretty good….

  • I am no doctor, but as I recall from my Rugby days, 4-5 concussions is not great; it also makes you more prone to future concussions (I believe). Unless teams start disclosing this information (e.g., number of concussions, severity, etc.), teams will not have the necessary transparency when it comes to assessing injuries during transactions. If I sold you a house, knowing that it had a crack in its foundation from an earthquake, but I refused to tell you, there would be legal ramifications for said transaction. Maybe the same should be true for player transactions.

    Anyway, I think we are both on the same page. The NHL has a ways to go, and teams should not be allowed to disguise concussions as “upper body injuries.” Maybe one solution is increased penalties for targetting injured players, though this involves the age-old debate of whether it’s okay to use a player’s injury to your advantage.

    With respect to the trade, only time will tell whether it was worth it. Regardless, I think we can all agree that GMGM did not get top dollar for our top prospect.

  • If Kevin Ware’s broken leg with the bone exposed happened in the NHL, they would call it a lower body injury

  • mkpanda78

    Good reporting indeed! And good on Erat for being up front. I think Randy Carlyle is onto something and as long as concussion is a “bad word” there will be a stigma attached to it that will have a ripple effect on reporting and treatment. Maybe the NHL can get some advertisers to name it something different like cranial dysfunction (CD) or god forbid, name it after an athlete. Or maybe they can start selling different color ribbons in support of concussions! But it isn’t a joking matter and hopefully the NHL management can find a way to end illegal head shots and improve their candor.

  • Nick

    By NHL definition, Herpes is a Lower Body Injury. Kim Kardashian is out indefinitely

  • fantastic article Igor.

  • Buck

    Nice to know we picked up a glass figurine. Good pick up GMGM

  • Sooooo your saying we gave away our #1 pick for a guy who may or may not be available in the present or near or far future???? Great!

  • I hope you are, but do you play hockey. That’s the thing, I thought it was a bad trade anyway and now this. Hopefully Martin is ok no matter the hockey part but gmgm should have done some homework it would seem.

  • Totally agree, Mikey. I guess if we throw in the Varlamov trade with this one — where GMGM just straight up robbed the Avalanche — we are even. Haha.

  • Agreed. I’m really glad you did the research here. It turned out fantastic!

  • mcrere

    that just seems shady–especially when someone has had multiple concussions–that would impact a trade deal as well as probably be a serious health concern.

  • Pete

    Disclosure to the public doesn’t matter. Proper treatment and, at minimum, adherence to the league mandated protocol are what matter.

    The league and PA need to check up on teams and injured players.

  • rebel177

    Over the last 5-7 years, any hockey injury is either upper or lower body- period. NHL tactics have long included players who weren’t afraid to give another injured player a little whack to the area in question. This “new ” tactic was used to the pt of outright lying by teams during playoff runs to prevent teams from targeting an injured player night after night. Now it’s just biz as usual.

  • Pete

    Because it is. I don’t see the problem. The public doesn’t have a right to know, teams aren’t required to disclose even if everyone knows (see Brooks Laich’s groin).

  • sean

    I have had 3 concussions and I feel fine. I have had 3 concussions and I feel fine.