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Mayo Clinic summit to look into hockey concussions

Dr. Michael Stuart is concerned about concussions in all levels of hockey, and he is doing something about it.

While much has been discussed about the serious injuries in the NHL and what steps the league has taken to try to limit their occurrence, Dr. Stuart and the Mayo Clinic are trying to fix the problem way before players grow up to be pros.

Stuart, the vice chair of orthopedic surgery and the co-director of sports medicine center departments at the Mayo Clinic, is spearheading a two-day summit on concussions beginning Tuesday.

Scientists, trainers, coaches, officials, and equipment manufacturers from the United States, Canada and Europe will gather at the clinic's sports medicine center for the "Ice Hockey Summit: Action on Concussion" conference.

Representatives from the NHL, USA Hockey, and youth leagues will be in attendance. The focus will be on the science of concussions, their impact on children, and how sports organizations react to the often devastating injuries. The conference will be about hockey, but the issues apply to all sports.

"We want to evaluate every possible avenue to try and reduce the risk and consequences of concussions, especially in youths and adolescents," Stuart said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "Tomorrow is going to be a very full day of looking at the up-to-date science on everything from what goes on in the brain to how they're evaluated, to equipment issues, and behavioral modifications."

The summit will begin Tuesday with six focus groups: one to look at databases, one to look at recognizing and diagnosing and caring for concussions, one to study player equipment, one on education, and one on rule changes and enforcement.

Each group leader will then present the findings and an action plan. The audience will then vote on the plans.

"When this is done, we're not only going to have the most up-to-date information about concussions, but we're also going to have an action plan which has been prioritized by leaders in the medical community as well as the sport of hockey," Stuart said.

Stuart has more than just a casual interest in hockey concussions. Since 2001, he has served as USA Hockey's chief medical officer, and he was also the doctor for the U.S. men's Olympic team this year at the Vancouver Games.

And it doesn't stop there.

Stuart is the father of Boston Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart and forward Colin Stuart, who is in the Buffalo Sabres' organization.

Concussions in hockey are nothing new — they ended the Hall of Fame careers of players such as Pat LaFontaine and Scott Stevens — but the awareness is, as well as actions created to try to limit them. The NHL has introduced new rules, such as banning blindside hits to the head, that now can be penalized during games as well as with supplemental discipline.

Phoenix's Shane Doan was given a three-game suspension on Monday for delivering an illegal hit to the head of Anaheim's Dan Sexton. Doan is the third NHL player to be punished this season for such an action.

"I'm encouraged by some of the recent developments," Stuart said. "I'm still concerned as a hockey doctor and as a hockey parent because there always is an element of risk. I think that the NHL has made some strides, and I know that they are committed.

"They do have a group of physicians and neuropsychologists who are looking into reducing the risk of concussions. They've been working on it for years. The most recent rule change is a step in the right direction."

Much has to be done with youngsters from the time they first lace up their skates.

"The main thing is for youths and adolescents because that's the largest group as far as numbers in the United States, Canada and even outside North America," Stuart said. "We're concerned about professional players, as well. We hope there will be spinoffs from this summit for pro hockey and other sports."

Stuart is stressing that education be given to young players about respecting the boards around the rink, respecting their opponents, and learning the proper ways to give — and receive — contact before they are allowed to do it in a game.

More injuries occur in leagues that allow body checking, but Stuart believes it is because the players don't know the proper techniques to do it. It is one thing to say a player must be at least a certain age before they can participate in a checking league, but Stuart feels that education and experience is every bit as necessary.

"When it's allowed in games, players either don't know how to do it correctly, they put themselves or their opponents at risk, and it tends to result in illegal activity," he said. "Many of these injuries that occur from body checking, in my opinion, are actually boarding, high-sticking, elbowing, charging, checking from behind.

"So it's really not the fault of a legal body check, but by allowing legal body checking in games it seems to foster illegal activities."