Hockey is full of injuries, big and small. That’s what happens when the game is physical and fast-paced.
Through the mysterious “upper-body” and “lower-body” injuries, there are a few that stand out. Usually, they’re the gruesome kinds. The kinds that leave an indelible mark in the psyche, that remind us that this is a dangerous game with sharp skates and surfaces that don’t give when a speeding object hits them at full force.
Roman Polak’s injury on the opening night of the Dallas Stars season this year was one of those kinds. The American Airlines Center was eerily quiet with 18,000-plus people in one place holding their breaths as Polak laid on the ice, motionless, after going into the boards awkwardly.
And here's Bruins announcer Jack Edwards casually calling Roman Polak's injury "bad hockey karma" just before he was taken off the ice on a stretcher pic.twitter.com/lOdlJZPSfw— Mark Powell (@jim_joyce_hater) October 4, 2019
He was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher and spent the night in the hospital. The Stars announced the day after that Polak suffered a fractured sternum from the impact. After the game, assembled media asked John Klingberg about Polak’s injury. “The good thing is I don’t know what happened, what kind of injury it is,” he said that evening. “But if it’s the neck, it’s a good thing he stayed still.”
This quote flew under the radar at the time, but is an important departure from the typical hockey culture of playing through injuries and rushing to get back into play. It properly acknowledges how dangerous the play was, and instead of praising a guy who gets up and tries to go off under his own power, Klingberg instead praised his teammate for not moving and taking the possible injury seriously.
Medical professionals are on the record in a myriad of places saying that if you took a hard hit to the head, you should keep the neck immobilized until doctors have had a chance to assess the severity of the injury. That’s because the neck has a whole host of things that work together to hold the head up: joints, bones, soft tissue, nerves. At the most benign, soft tissue injuries can be painful in the neck area. At the most serious, bones in the neck can fracture and could lead to damage to the spinal cord, which runs through the neck.
And that is exactly why keeping the head immobilized until the injury can be assessed is exactly the correct move whenever the neck is involved in a potential injury, regardless of how that injury comes about or where it occurs.
“He was talking when I came over, too, a little bit,” Klingberg said. “But, I mean, it didn’t look very good. We were able to see the replay at the bench too, and it kind of looked pretty bad. It’s good he stayed down, you never know what’s going to happen if you move around, either.”
More players should speak up like Klingberg did after Polak’s brush with neck injury. It helps to further normalize prioritizing long-term health and well-being over the canonization of toughness that permeates hockey culture. The sport would be better served in the long run for it.