With the start of a new youth hockey season looming, it’s critical that players, parents and coaches continue to integrate discussion around player safety into their preseason preparation and familiarize themselves with the various educational tools available.
When it comes to injury prevention, the sport – through new rules, better training and equipment – has come a long way to decrease the quantity and severity of on-ice injuries. Removing dangerous hits, particularly those from behind, to the head or to an unsuspecting player, is a step in the right direction.
Despite the obvious progress, concussions in sports remain a serious topic that collectively, young players and adults in the game must continue to address. Concussions can be more difficult to identify and treat than ankle or shoulder injuries, and if a player experiences multiple head injuries there can be long-term consequences that we all want to avoid.
While ensuring player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic has risen to the forefront of concern the last couple of seasons (and for good reason), it’s also a good time for a reminder about USA Hockey's Concussion Management Program and Return to Play Forms that were introduced just a few seasons ago.
USA Hockey’s Manager of Player Safety, Kevin Margarucci, who has more than 25 years of experience as a certified athletic trainer, answered questions about the program, and what players, parents and coaches need to know as they head into the 2022-23 season.
USA Hockey: What is most important for people to know about the Concussion Management Program?
Kevin Margarucci: The main takeaway is that they have an awareness that this concussion program exists and is available to our members. Also, part of the minimum requirement is the Return to Play Form that players must have, and parents must sign, prior to the athlete returning to the ice after a concussion. As far as the program itself, pay special attention to the concussion management steps, that include what to do if a concussion is suspected, and symptoms and signs to watch for.
USA Hockey: Why is it critical for coaches and parents to be up to speed on this information?
Kevin Margarucci: Players need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion. They should let their coach or parents know when they are hurt in order to prevent a more serious injury and actually get them back playing sooner. Coaches and parents should know when a player is held out for a concussion, they are not allowed to return to play without medical clearance and a signed Return to Play Form.
USA Hockey: What role do players and teammates play in this process?
Kevin Margarucci: In 2019, through a partnership with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, USA Hockey introduced “Team Up Speak Up,” which was a weeklong effort to ensure athletes tell a team leader if they notice concussion signs in a teammate. That’s coming up again this year on October 24-29. The initial campaign was focused on a coach giving a speech to his team, to let them know that if they’re hurt or a teammate isn’t feeling well to speak up to a coach or other adult. A lot of kids are scared to speak up so that message from their coach is important to hear. This year’s program is more player-focused. Now, it is more of a captain’s program, where it’s the players giving the speech, with the coaches’ support. The goal is to create a positive, supportive environment and a culture where reporting such a thing isn’t thought of as a negative. It’s about helping our teammates and keeping them as safe as possible.
USA Hockey: How would you grade USA Hockey in terms of its emphasis on concussion prevention, management and return to play protocol?
Kevin Margarucci: I think we’re in a really good spot. Our concussion management program has always been based on the latest evidence-based research and best practices available. But like anything in medicine and science, the more you look into something, the more you learn. The next Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport is scheduled for later this year (Oct. 27-29 in Amsterdam), and we expect that in the Spring of 2023 there will be a new consensus document on the standard of care in the management and treatment of concussions. So, there will likely be some updates to our program that come out of that. USA Hockey also now has player safety coordinators in all 12 of our districts, so there’s a better avenue of communication and education at the local level.
We want to give our membership, coaches, parents and players, the best information possible and try to build compliance with the current standards of care, to get kids back on the ice in the safest way so they can continue to enjoy playing hockey.
USA Hockey: Has society followed suit with creating awareness, or is there still a stigma attached to concussions?
Kevin Margarucci: The culture of playing through pain and injuries is waning a little bit; we’re seeing more concussions being reported and people are getting the care they need. People are learning that, like any injury, if you do the right things, you can get through the process sooner than someone who didn’t do the right things and created a prolonged recovery.
There’s more awareness about how to identify concussions, manage and treat them better. There’s better rule enforcement, and we’re striving for a more sportsmanlike game, playing hard, but the right way. Each state also has legislation or statutes when it comes to concussion management. It’s a multi-pronged approach to creating a new culture. You can get a concussion without playing a contact sport, but we of course want to see the incidents of concussions decrease year in and year out. If everyone buys in, it will make the environment safer.