Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Sad Recent History of Flyers and Concussions

As I was writing my piece on concussions and the NHL, I couldn't help but think about all the horrible bad luck the Flyers have had with concussions in my lifetime.

This season alone, the Flyers have been hit hard by the concussion plague. First it was Brayden Schenn, the 20-year-old lynchpin in the Mike Richards trade, who has played just six games this season, but is slated to return soon.

Then, a few weeks ago, the team lost its captain, Chris Pronger, who suffered an eye injury that turned into a virus that turned into concussion-like symptoms.

And finally, on Saturday they suffered the biggest blow of all, losing Claude Giroux indefinitely to a concussion just as Claude was turning into one of the faces of the league. He is Philadelphia's best player, the NHL's leading scorer and the foundation of these new-look Flyers.

Sadly, this is nothing new for this franchise. Eric Lindros was the preeminent superstar in the NHL, a Hart Trophy winner who led the Flyers from obscurity to the Stanley Cup Final. Then Darius Kasparaitis leveled him and gave him his first high-profile concussion. After that, Lindros was never the same, and his lasting image in the Orange and Black is him lying motionless on the ice, mouthpiece out, after Scott Stevens destroyed him near the blue line.

It was the straw that broke the camel's back in a fractured relationship with then-Flyers GM Bobby Clarke, and it was the last time Lindros ever suited up for the Flyers until he dons the Orange and Black once again during the Winter Classic alumni game. Lindros was never the sam player again, eventually being forced to retire due to concussions.

That was one captain who's career was completely altered by head trauma, but sadly not the last. Keith Primeau morphed from an underachiever in Detroit and under-the-radar in Carolina to become the quintessential leader for the Flyers — a tall task after being traded for fan favorite Rod Brind'Amour.

But Primeau quickly endeared himself with sound defensive hockey, remarkable work in the faceoff circle and of course, the immortal five-overtime playoff winner against the Penguins. Soon thereafter, he evolved into the team's biggest leader, became captain and had one of the most dominant postseason runs in NHL history before the Flyers were ousted in the Eastern Conference Finals by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning.

However, the good times wouldn't last. Primeau suffered a concussion the next season and eventually was forced to retire because of it. Two captains, one a superstar, the other an unquestioned leader, snatched away by concussions.

Given the star power the Flyers have lost this season alone combined with just the unfortunate situations of Lindros and Primeau would be more than enough to prove the Flyers have had terrible luck when it comes to concussions. Sadly, the full truth is far worse.

Eric Desjardins, another former captain and talented offensive defenseman, suffered concussions late in his career that ultimately played a part in his retirement. Kim Johnsson, without a shadow of a doubt the best defenseman for Philadelphia at the time — and oddly enough acquired from the New York Rangers in the Eric Lindros trade — suffered a debilitating concussion prior to being traded and eventually had to retire after winning a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks without playing a single minute in the postseason.

Then there were the concussions struggles of all-star sniper Simon Gagne, who missed parts of two seasons dealing with the issue. As we know, his absence caused major offensive problems for the team.

Likewise, Sami Kapanen sustained numerous concussions and ultimately retired from the NHL due to health concerns. Jeremy Roenick, who had a history of concussions throughout his career, took a slap shot off the face, breaking his jaw and getting concussed, only to rush back miraculously in time for the postseason. J.R., never one to shy away from opening his mouth, has discussed his concussion issues time and time again.

And no Flyers fan alive will ever forget the incredible sacrifice of Ian Laperriere, laying out to block a shot in a postseason game already well in hand, only to get his teeth knocked out and suffer what eventually became a career-ending injury — albeit one he came back from in that very same playoffs at enormous risk. He hasn't played since.

I'm sure there are plenty more Flyers who've suffered similar injuries that I've missed. But just this list alone shows how snake-bitten the franchise has been. For the most part, these aren't bit players this team has lost, sometimes for good, to concussions. Lindros was a superstar. Primeau the captain, top penalty killer and a guy who was coming off an outrageous playoffs. Gagne was an all-star sniper. Desjardins and Johnsson two of the team's best defensemen. Roenick a star in his own right. Kapanen a do-it-all forward who even played defense when things got thin on the blue line. And Laperriere simply one of the greatest penalty killers of all time and a warrior.

Now the Flyers are without perennial all-star and future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, one of the best players on the planet Claude Giroux, and one of the top prospects in the league Brayden Schenn.

In just the past 15 years alone, the Flyers have had a truly sad history of concussions. Here's hoping Pronger, Giroux and Schenn recover to the fullest and continue their careers unfettered, particularly the 23-year-old Giroux and 20-year-old Schenn. Because losing any of them the way this team lost Lindros and Primeau to concussions would be simply too much to take.

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