Daily Debate: Don't think concussion issue is important? Two words, Keith Primeau

February, 8, 2011
2/08/11
1:04
PM ET

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the concussion issue and get insight from a player who is living with the repercussions of the injury well into retirement:

Burnside: Well, it appears the concussion issue isn't going away with this week's news that Marc Savard is done for the season. Of course, the game's marquee player, Sidney Crosby, remains out with no timetable for his return. And it's not just hard hits or blows to the head that are sending players to the sidelines with concussion problems. Washington defenseman Mike Green, in the midst of a great defensive season, may miss tonight's game against San Jose after taking a Brooks Orpik shot to the ear on Sunday. If fans get bored of hearing about concussions, they shouldn't; I don't think there's been as important an issue since the end of the lockout.

LeBrun: You're bang-on about how paramount this issue has become. Not that any of it is new.

Five years ago, Keith Primeau was forced to call it quits because of his concussion problems and tried his best to bang the drums about the serious dangers associated with the injury. Some listened, others ignored him. He was a high-profile player, the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. I had a chance to speak with him Monday night and asked him about the issue now that Crosby is sidelined and Savard is out for the season with his career in jeopardy.

[+] EnlargePrimeau
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesMultiple head injuries forced Keith Primeau to retire from the NHL in 2006.

"I'm much more comfortable with the position and the stance that the league has taken and shown," Primeau told ESPN.com. "I was very discouraged and disappointed for an extended period of time following my last concussion and the difficulties I've gone through, because I didn't feel they [the NHL] were being proactive enough, and I was really saddened by it."

But last year, Primeau sat down with Brendan Shanahan, who explained the league's research and concussion program and protocol.

"It's something they've taken really seriously, and that gave me some type of solace after going my particular situation," said Primeau. "There's still a long way to go, but I think I understand it a bit more now from the perspective that when you're trying to implement change, it's not just 'make decision and go through with it.' There's a lot of positioning that needs to be cut through to make it happen.

"You're dealing with 30 different organizations, 30 different owners, 30 different management teams, not to mention the players' association. So, at the end of the day, they all have to get on the same page and be proactive and recognize the severity of the situation. Part of me believes that they are taking it seriously."

Burnside: Primeau represents a great cautionary tale about concussions. He had become a dominant player -- remember his Mark Messier-like turn for the Flyers during the 2004 playoffs and that great seven-game series against Tampa Bay in the conference finals? Then, it was over.

One has to wonder what is left for Savard, a gifted offensive player. And what about Crosby? It will be a colossal setback for the game if Crosby cannot return to his former level of play. I thought it was a bit disingenuous for Toronto GM Brian Burke to suggest at the board of governors meeting in Raleigh last month that the concussion debate was being skewed by Crosby's injury, that we wouldn't be discussing it at such a fever pitch if it was a lesser player. Fair enough, but isn't this exactly why we shouldn't be letting the debate die?

The GMs will be looking closely at the issue when they meet in a month in Florida. If there isn't serious discussion during that meeting -- and I'm not saying adopting a new rule, necessarily -- but at least a serious debate on the idea of a total ban on head shots, then they should all hand in their GM decoder rings and let someone else try to tackle the problem.

LeBrun: After the governors broke out of that meeting in Raleigh, it was clear from their tones that the GMs have clear marching orders from their bosses to once again roll up their sleeves and take this discussion to the next level. There is no clear solution, even Primeau admitted that, but the smart minds who run the sport just have to keep chipping away at it.

Primeau isn't sure whether Rule 48 should go further.

"It's such a fine line. It's so hard to distinguish what is too far, what's not enough," Primeau said. "I'm a traditionalist, and we all understand that contact is part of our game and what makes our sport so unique. So where do we find that common ground? I don't know, and that's why everyone needs to continue to be proactive. That's why it needs to be on the docket again when GMs get together and continue to work toward a strong resolution."

As for Crosby, Primeau remembered watching him go down in the Winter Classic and thinking it was probably a concussion. But Primeau doesn't lay blame on the Penguins for letting the franchise star play the next game.

"It was really not anybody's fault that it wasn't diagnosed, because that's the way they work," said Primeau. "There's no real pattern, no real rhyme or reason to concussions. I know that in my situation, my symptoms never showed themselves until 48 hours after the contact."

Sound familiar?

"People are arguing with Sidney whether it was the first hit [from Washington's David Steckel] or the second hit [from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman]. It doesn't matter," added Primeau. "What matters is that he has a concussion, and now let's treat it and let's handle it in the appropriate matter."

Burnside: There is no easy solution. I accept that. But this is a motherhood issue, or it should be for both the GMs and the NHL Players' Association. Those two sides have fought on this issue in the past, with players pushing for tougher rules on blows to the head and the GMs dragging their feet before last spring's last-minute addition of Rule 48.

This is a good test for new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr; he will be called on to represent the players' safety while having to balance what most people believe should be heavy sanctions against players who endanger others with reckless play. For once, it would be nice if everyone was on the same page when it comes to protecting the game's most important assets -- its best players -- and not worry so much about the marginal player who takes another player's head off in a misguided attempt to maintain a place in an NHL lineup.

It would also be nice if there were more honest hockey folks like Andrew Ference, who agreed that teammate Daniel Paille's hit on Dallas forward Raymond Sawada was a bad hit. GMs have to stop setting the process back by automatically complaining about suspensions for head shots just because it involves their players. That kind of hypocrisy does little to help move the process forward and is insulting to players and fans.

LeBrun: And let's all remember the stakes here. Five years removed from his last NHL game, Primeau continues to be dogged by on-again, off-again headaches and head pressure. How scary is that?

With that in mind, Primeau is passionate about this issue. It has affected his life on many levels, but also the game he continues to cherish, these days as a coach for his hockey-playing sons. Does he feel better about how the league and the sport are handling the issue now compared to when he retired in 2006?

"I do," said Primeau. "Do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. And I think all the way through -- right from the grassroots level, right up through junior, collegiate, semipro to pro, in all facets of the game -- there needs to be true symmetry in order to really tackle the issues. Until we find that type of symmetry, we're going to continue to learn, but maybe not at the pace that we'd like to see it happen."


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