The Calgary Flames’ newest and biggest star, Jonathan Huberdeau, made a major announcement towards advancing medical research. Huberdeau has pledged to donate his brain to Project Enlist Canada. Huberdeau is one of, if not the biggest name in hockey to pledge their brain.
Ben Lovejoy was the first NHL player to pledge his brain for research in 2017, and the list has since grown to include other former players like Daniel Carcillo and J.T. Brown, among others. Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser has also pledged her brain as well.
What makes pledging brains so important is the research that it opens up towards advancing healthcare and understanding of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among other conditions.
Let’s go through a quick breakdown of why hockey players are at higher risk for these injuries.
Traumatic brain injuries in hockey
Concussions are unfortunately very common in hockey. Concussions are generally understood to be caused by rapid rotational acceleration and deceleration of the brain. When the head rotates in a sudden and rapid manner, shear forces can be imparted onto the brain. For simplicity, shear forces can be described as unaligned forces acting in opposite directions. In the context of concussions, these unaligned forces cause the rotational acceleration.
Hockey is a very fast sport. Being played on ice and skates, players move larger distances in shorter lengths of time compared to sports played on feet and solid ground. Add in the contact allowed in hockey and it’s a recipe for high-risk scenarios where concussions can be the outcome.
In many ways a big hit in an NHL game is a spectacle that invokes a large reaction from the crowd and fires up the teams on the benches, but if left unprotected or unaware, a player can be seriously hurt with little to no warning.
Not to mention a concussion doesn’t need a big hit to occur. There are other ways to get concussed, like getting a skate blade caught in the ice or boards, or even just stopping the wrong way on a play that’s happening far too fast.
That’s why it’s critical to have several safety measures from the moment the player steps onto the ice until they step off. It starts with the equipment through to the protocols and procedures. The most obvious piece of equipment is the helmet. Research continually works towards making helmets certifiable in terms of protecting against or limiting severities of concussions, but in reality a lot of the mechanics behind concussions can’t be prevented by wearing a helmet.
A helmet will save your life in case of an accident, but it can’t prevent a concussion. You can’t out-physics physics.
Beyond the equipment, the next steps involves the safety team, including concussion spotters and medical personnel on hand to assist players immediately after injury. Finally, the healing procedure after an injury. With concussions being invisible as injuries, players can feel like they’re ready to play or feel pressured to play. However, the post-injury recovery is critical as it can either lead to a full healthy recovery, or a player can remain susceptible to repeated injury.
To say that concussion safety is one of the most important parts of player safety for hockey (and sports as a whole) is an understatement.
Researching the links between concussions and adverse health effects will go a long way in bettering patient care after injury as well as put more emphasis on injury prevention. To have big name athletes pledge their brains goes a long way, and the hope is that more athletes, both in and out of the NHL, will start doing the same.
Per Project Enlist, brain donation has proven to be a very important avenue for research in the TBI/CTE for athletes and military members. With the research area being relatively new, these donations are paramount in advancing overall physical and mental health.
A major applause to Huberdeau and the other players who have pledged their brains.