“We Need to Stop Skating Away From Our Responsibility to Improve Player Safety”

In an op-ed for The Boston Globe, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for USA Hockey discusses the longterm impact of fighting in hockey and the need for change.

As an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Dr. Charles Popkin has seen how fighting on the ice can dramatically alter a hockey player’s quality of life long before they reach their fifth decade.

Dr. Charles Popkin

“Players often need treatment for hand fractures, oculofacial trauma, and concussions,” Dr. Popkin writes in an opinion piece published in The Boston Globe. “And there is growing evidence that repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is associated with a range of symptoms — from depression, aggression, and memory loss to dementia, speech abnormalities, and parkinsonism. In most cases, symptoms appear years after the brain trauma, well after players retire.”

Dr. Popkin, who is also an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, recently published research on the impact of fighting in the NHL. “We found that despite two decades of declines in fighting rates, the popularity of the game has remained unchanged,” he wrote. “During the peak of the enforcer era of ice hockey in 1987, there were on average 1.3 fights per game. In the season before the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate was down to 0.19 fights per game. Meanwhile, NHL arenas have been near capacity and were averaging over 17,000 fans a night.” Furthermore,  there was little correlation between fighting and a team’s winning record.

Dr. Popkin urges orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine physicians, neurologists, and physiatrists to be a united front in speaking out about the dangers that result from hits to the head. He also calls for the NHL to penalize players more seriously for fighting and make fighting a game misconduct penalty. “Player safety should be at the forefront of the league’s agenda, and it should immediately change the rule,” he writes. “It’s a worthwhile investment in the players and the long-term health and viability of the game.”

Read the full op-ed here.

Dr. Charles A. Popkin is an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also serves as a team physician for USA Hockey and is a member of the USA Hockey National Safety and Protective Equipment Committee.

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