Laura Stamm Knew All About Hockey’s Concussion Issue Years Ago

The news that more than 200 former National Hockey league players have filed a class action suit against the league that the alleges that the league knew about the dangers posed by concussions and failed to do enough to reduce the risk of head injuries and educate players about the issue is not much of a surprise. There is growing evidence that sports related concussions are causing major health problems in former athletes long after their athletic careers.

They question really is why did the former athletes wait so long? About 14 years ago Laura Stamm was speaking out about catastrophic injuries that were suffered on the rink and how the game was out of control. In March, 2000, Laura Stamm and I talked about all hockey injuries and how there needed to be a study of hockey and make the game safer starting at the youngest levels.

Laura Stamm’s acknowledgement that there was something wrong with hockey pretty much feel on deaf ears in 2000. It is almost 14 years later and the same issues she raised in a rink in Elmsford, New York have not gone away.

Concussions have been added to the conversation though. Laura Stamm was on top of it then. Perhaps now people will listen to what she was talking about then. The following was written following a conversation with Laura in February, 2000 in the now defunct Todayssports website.

Her words are worth repeating.

It could have been in Elmsford, New York or Bayonne, New Jersey or in Darien, Connecticut or in a rink in Anchorage, Alaska. The woman in the white jacket was explaining a “C cut” and encouraging an 11-year old skater to “push, push, push”. It is the same program of power skating she pioneered and developed in the 1970s and taught to mites and squirts and pros.

Away from the ice surface, she has a picture with Detroit’s Doug Brown, herself and the Stanley Cup on a table near the rink. You would not think looking at the instructor that she had something in common with the American Academy of Pediatrics when it came to hockey instruction and children playing hockey. But Laura Stamm does.

Stamm has been around pro and amateur hockey (at the time) for more than two decades. She started by teaching Bob Nystrom, a third-round New York Islanders pick in 1972 who was told he was not going to make it unless he improved his skating, and continued by teaching players like Luc Robitaille, Kevin Dineen and Steve Duchesne to name just a few of the hundreds of NHL players.

While that work is important, Stamm is embarking on a new phase of her career. She wants people to know that spinal injuries can be prevented.

Concussions are a big problem on the NHL level and they are becoming a huge problem for children who are being bounced around the ice. Preventing concussions and other injuries is an area that needs immediate attention. Youth Hockey injuries have finally caught the attention of the nation’s doctors.

Earlier this week (March 2000), the nation’s largest group of pediatricians issued a statement asking youth hockey leagues to ban checking in an attempt to significantly reduce injuries.

The American Academy of Pediatrics cited a study that blamed aggressive contact for as much as 86 percent of youth hockey injuries. The group recommended a ban on checking in all organized games with players under 15.

(At the time) About 200,000 youngsters play organized hockey in the United States, and another 200,000 play in Canada, according to the academy.

“We didn’t feel like there was a different way to do checking or a safer way to do checking,” said Dr. Steven Anderson, chairman of the AAP committee that issued the policy statement.

He said the AAP suggested 15 because participation in youth sports starts to drop at that age and because children 13 to 15 have the most discrepancy in size.

USA Hockey, which sets checking guidelines for most youth hockey leagues, prohibits checking before age 12. The Canadian Hockey Association allows individual branches to set checking guidelines.

While the pediatricians have weighed in, Stamm has been busy collecting data for years on what hockey-related injuries are doing to children who miss school because of things that happened on ice and in the workplace for adults who miss time with skating-related injuries and in pro hockey.

Stamm has been working with former New York Islanders team physician Dr. Jeffrey Minkoff about spinal injuries caused by shots to the back and smashing into the boards. All of the work done so far is in its preliminary stage.

Stamm began this phase after hearing the news that a former student, Erik Drygas, suffered a catastrophic injury at the end of a practice on October 9, 1996.

Drygas, then a 20-year-old player with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, fell into the boards headfirst during a drill near the end of a practice. He broke his neck. Drygas became a statistic to some, but he now lives with a paralyzing injury.

Drygas was six-foot-three and weighed 214 pounds. He had been a regular student at Stamm’s Alaska power skating classes. He progressed and became an assistant instructor at those classes.

Stamm feels not enough is being done at every level to prevent all sorts of injuries. At the children’s level, referees don’t seem to be enforcing rules that would prevent injuries. Coaches aren’t teaching the game properly to prevent injuries, and the NHL and TV are glamorizing vicious hits because TV believes violence sells and that sends a wrong message.

“Do coaches ever teach kids how to protect themselves or are kids kamikazes near the boards?” Stamm asked. “You don’t see those kinds of injuries in the NHL, because those players have neck strength. Kids and college players don’t have that kind of neck strength.

So how are catastrophic injuries like the ones suffered by Drygas, Travis Roy and Brad Hornung avoided? Stamm said kids should be taught by coaches, who should teach how someone should fall and what they should do in case they fall near the boards? The answer is: try to turn your body quickly and get anything but the head hitting the boards.

Stamm found out in a New Jersey power skating class that just talking about safety doesn’t cut it.

“Showing videos and telling kids is not enough. The kids were turning their back to the front, but they were still going headfirst. You have to do it many times before you do it right. Shouldn’t we be teaching how to fall to our children?”

Coaches who go “hell-bent for leather” at the end of a practice session should reconsider that drill after long practices. Stamm questioned why Drygas and his teammates went so hard after a long and tiring practice.

“I feel we should start an educational program. It is something we need to do. Parents should start screaming about it. It’s their children. Why should a beautiful life be cut down? It may have been prevented. All you have to do is take a few minutes and teach people how to spin near the boards.”

The NHL claims it has been cracking down on checking from behind. USA Hockey and the Canadian Hockey Association are supposed to instruct referees to crack down on checking from behind. Go to a rink and watch a kids’ game, and then decide if the crackdowns are really occurring. See how many high elbows are called and then decide if hockey’s governing bodies are paying attention.

“Kids are emulating what they are seeing. It’s dangerous and I feel that this is something I need to do.”

With the proliferation of rinks around the United States continuing, particularly in the South, will become a major factor. In fact, some rinks no longer have “public sessions” because of insurance costs.

Stamm has had a voice in hockey for more than two decades. She would like to become a pioneer and developer of safer hockey and safer skating for children. She now has a very strong ally in her desire to make hockey a safer environment for children. The American Academy of Pediatricians is now on board with its recommendations.

Will hockey powers listen? Will rink managers listen? Will tournament organizers listen? There is a lot of money to be made in youth hockey and, many times, the children are an afterthought.

Will parents stand up for their children or let the Youth Hockey organizers make decisions that are at odds with doctors and hockey advocates? That’s a question that needs an answer, if Youth Hockey is to be cleaned up.

The NHL has now been hit with a lawsuit saying it didn’t do enough to treat players with head injuries. National Hockey League players are adults and can make decisions about their lives but they started out as children playing for “fun”. That is where changes need to start but there is still the problem of winning at all costs even at the six, seven and eight year old level.

Sports culture needs to change to make sure sports like hockey and football survive or they could face near extinction like boxing.

The answer back in 2000 was no, youth hockey didn’t need to be cleaned up. But in 2010, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota conducted research on youth hockey and suggested the age that hockey federations should allow body checking needed to be raised to 13. That has happened. The NHL has increased evaluation for players who may have suffered a concussion during a game or practice.

The hockey culture could be changing more. Mayo Clinic researchers in October sent out a message to everyone involved in hockey. The game is causing brain trauma and has to change because of repeated hits to the head. Fighting needs to be banned from the game.

Whether the NHL or other hockey governing bodies take the Mayo Clinic study into consideration is strictly up to them but the findings are something Laura Stamm figured out a decade and a half ago.

Evan Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11),  From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11 )  and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094 ) are available.

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