Pens know concussions part of their game
He was there, and feisty Penguins left wing Matt Cooke has been there, too.
Head injuries, such as the concussion sustained Sunday by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are a scary reminder of the human body's limitations for millionaire professional athletes.
"Knock on wood, just one bad one," Cooke said Monday of his concussion history. "I got caught off guard with an elbow to the chin, hit my face on the ice when I fell and I was out.
"It's something as an athlete you don't really think of, but if you sit back and watch another sport or watch your sport after you are done playing, you think, 'Holy cow! I'm surprised how (violent) that looks.'"
Cooke attended the NFL game between the Steelers and Cleveland Browns with his children. The sight of Roethlisberger strapped to a stretcher, his head and neck immobilized as a medical crew transported him to an ambulance, provided Cooke with a reminder of thoughts he will strive to avoid when the Penguins face the Boston Bruins tonight at Mellon Arena.
"I've never once thought about injuries," Cooke said. "Not until after they've happened, at least."
Concussions are on the rise in the NHL. A study by the Orange County Register prior to the 2007-08 season determined league players missed 760 games in 2006-07 due to concussions and related symptoms.
Boston forward Patrice Bergeron missed all but 10 games last season due to a concussion and was hospitalized Dec. 20 after a hit in a game against Caroline left him with another concussion.
"The concussion is one injury that, obviously, in our day you didn't see much," Penguins assistant coach Andre Savard said. "That's not the case today."
Savard played in the NHL from 1973-85, including one season in which he didn't wear a helmet. He blames equipment advances on the increased head injuries.
"The shoulder pads and elbow pads are really stiff now," Savard said. "You run into a guy now, and it's like hitting a wall, and the players are bigger now and going so fast — it's harder to avoid them."
Modern players who do talk about the subject of head injuries generally share the thoughts of Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, who believes players must "protect (themselves)."
"There is that responsibility on players," Orpik said. "As a player, you can't put yourself in a vulnerable position. Guys are going so fast. If I see a guy coming in, I know he's coming, and I've got to keep my shoulders square. I can't turn my shoulders. I know he's going to finish his hit. That's what he's coached to do. That's his job."
Physicality is part of the job description for hockey players, but that doesn't make absorbing contact any easier or less of a concern.
Of concern to many Penguins players is a losing battle for open space on the ice. Less of that leads to injuries, or so goes left wing Pascal Dupuis' theory.
"They're not making us any smaller, but the rinks are what they were when guys were normal size," Dupuis said. "It makes a lot of sense that the hits are more violent. They are more violent. There's less space and time to get away from them."
Center Jordan Staal said attempting to avoid an on-coming skater is useless. Ideally, he added, players could "do what (center Evgeni Malkin) does and get underneath guys, so they kind of slide off you."
"But most guys can't do that; it's not easy," Staal said. "When you look at the great players, like (Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby), they do such a great job of dodging guys. I think that's why they're the great players they are. They get out of the way."
Many Penguins players yesterday spoke of developing a "sense about being hit." For Staal, "it's a feeling in (his) stomach."
"It's kind of weird, especially when I know (the hit) is going to be bad," Staal said. "You get to a spot on the ice, and you just know somebody is going to be there. You expect it.
"You just hope it's not going to be that bad."
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