Alumnus keeps hockey headshots in sights

It was more than 20 years ago, but memories of that night in the London Ice House continue to fuel Ken Bocking’s fight to rid hockey of headshots and the debilitating trauma they cause.

In 1996, Bocking, MD’75, was watching his son Steven, BSc’02, playing for the Junior B St. Thomas Stars as they opened a playoff series against the London Nationals. On defence, Steven went back to grab the puck in the corner when a London player came in elbows up – “like a cruise missile.” Steven was nailed into the glass and went down hard.

“You don’t forget the things that really impact your life,” the retired general surgeon said. “It was quite traumatic for me. While I’d seen lots of injuries, they were not necessarily to my own kid.”

Two years later, as a second-year Western student, Steven rejoined the Stars. Once again, he took an elbow to the head and suffered his second concussion in as many years.

At this point, Bocking had to do something to bring the concussion crisis to the centre ice of people’s minds.

“Steven had post-concussion syndrome for three or more months after this,” Bocking said. “He was in second year at Western, couldn’t study, had to be in a dark room, loud noises gave him a terrible headache. I was royally pissed off.”

Bocking contacted then Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) President Brent Ladd about addressing heasdshots. Unless referees started calling penalties – at that time there were no rules against hits to the head – more kids were going to get hurt, he argued.

“This first thing he said to me was, ‘Are you a pissed-off father or a concerned doctor?’ Yes and yes. But I did this because I felt I had to. It wasn’t going to be easy.”

In his campaign, Bocking joined forces with University of Waterloo Kinesiology professor Pat Bishop and Dr. Tom Pashby. Bishop was researching better hockey helmets to protect against concussions; he ultimately determined there was no such helmet. Pashby was an ophthalmologist pushing for visors to be added to helmets.

The trio met with OHA owners in an attempt to introduce a no-head checking rule.

The league had just recently instituted a ‘no checking from behind’ rule, so whether an additional limitation would be welcomed was no guarantee. But the idea was welcomed unanimously.

In 2000, the OHA became the first hockey association in Canada to put a ‘no head-checking’ rule on the books. In 2011, Hockey Canada followed suit.

Bocking next spoke with NHL officials to persuade them to do the same as a way.

It was not to be.

“The NHL is something totally different. We spoke with Colin Campbell (Senior Vice-President and Director of Hockey Operations at the time). He didn’t want to talk about it. I never really got anywhere with him,” said Bocking, who also approached the NHL Players Association. “It was an, ‘I’ll get back to you. We’re going to take it under advisement.’

“But they did nothing.”

Changing hockey culture was as tough as the enforcers teams employ to cause the damage Bocking was fighting against. For years, the NHL refused to take action against hits to the head.

But in 2011, former NHL player Brendan Shanahan took over as Vice President of Player Safety. That is when a shift started to occur, Bocking explained.

Previously, individual teams and their physicians determined if a player was concussed. Now, the league would enlist a certified athletic trainers at each game, along with watching from the NHL’s headquarters in New York, to act as spotters for possible concussions. They have the power to force teams to take players off the ice if showing signs of a concussion.

Nevertheless, headshots are still legal in the NHL – or, at least, not totally illegal.

Rule 48 of the National Hockey League Official Rules states: “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable,” constitutes an illegal check to the head. However, referees must determine if the hit was intentional, or if the victim put himself in a vulnerable position.

While the league has taken steps in the right direction, Bocking added there are still numerous players whose careers were shortened because of concussion(s) sustained while playing.

“When they sign up for the NHL, players realize there is a risk to their health. They are getting paid very well to have that risk,” he explained. “But the NHL knew what was going on back then and didn’t want to change it because they were going to make more money.”

Just this past week, a federal judge in Minnesota denied class-action lawsuit by former NHL players accusing the league of failing to protect them from head injuries and concealing information about the long-term effects of concussions.

In their lawsuit, the retired players have accused the NHL of withholding information about the linkage of brain trauma to long-term neurological problems, as well as failing to adopt measures to better safeguard players. Instead, they argue, the league “promoted a culture of extreme violence in which fighting became central to the sport and players inflicted crushing blows against each other and walls of the ice rink.”

The league has disputed the assertions; its experts have long denied a definitive link between concussions sustained by hockey players and neurological disorders.

The potential lawsuit would have been similar to the NFL class-action case expected to cost the league more than $1 billion.

“I keep hoping it will get better,” Bocking said. “I became really stubborn about concussion issue. I’m pleased how it’s come along, but it took a long time for the refs to even get the idea. We are concerned about the players.”

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Western researchers are working to understand what happens when concussions occur in order to better diagnose and develop therapies and strategies to improve short- and long-term outcomes for people like 10-year-old Sheldon Geerts. Click here to read the full series ON THIN ICE.