Luke DeCock

As Svechnikov’s rapid return approaches, a call for prudence and patience

Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov (37) is attended to after being knocked to the ice during a fight with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin during the first period on Monday, April 15, 2019 at the PNC Arena on Raleigh, N.C.
Carolina Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov (37) is attended to after being knocked to the ice during a fight with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin during the first period on Monday, April 15, 2019 at the PNC Arena on Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Aleski Saarela is coming up from the minors to give the Carolina Hurricanes the body they lost when Jordan Martinook apparently reaggravated a right leg injury Thursday night, so there’s no immediate pressure to put Andrei Svechnikov back in the lineup.

But no one will rule it out, either.

The temptation will still be strong to play Svechnikov, apparently fully recovered from the knockout blow Alex Ovechkin delivered Monday night, in Saturday’s Game 5 if he successfully exits the league’s concussion protocol. And if not then, then Monday in Game 6.

Either way, in this age of a new awareness of concussions and brain health, it seems an impossibly short period of time to be back on the ice, especially in this in a meat-grinder of a series where head hits have been as common as power-play goals.

Which is not to cast doubt on the Hurricanes or their medical team. Every concussion is different, every player responds differently, every recovery moves at its own pace – often slow, sometimes fast.

Still, whatever the rewards would be for getting Svechnikov back in the lineup, whatever the medical justification, this situation calls for the utmost caution and prudence.

But even concussion advocate Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, can’t make a great general argument against it.

“The longer you are between brain injuries, the better off you’re going to be,” Nowinski said Friday. “You’re right to say this looks funny. We might look back in 10 years and say this was crazy. But we still return to play a lot of guys in a week, and we haven’t seen a lot of strong evidence against it.”

Everything points to Monday, but no one will definitively rule out Saturday, and that possibility still hangs out there, doubtful as it may be, given the pace of his progress.

“There’s no concussion history, ever, and the doctors aren’t going to clear him unless they’re 100 percent,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. “Once he gets cleared, there’s no issue from my end.”

“He’s doing fine,” said Todd Diamond, Svechnikov’s agent. “Knowing the concussion protocol, now he needs to go through that process and get clearance, also assuming he gets through the workouts feeling good. Those are the determinative factors when his return would happen.”

As long as Svechnikov remains asymptomatic, and by all accounts he has shown few if any ill effects, and if the doctors and trainers can offer no clinical objections, then why not?

Perhaps because he is a 19-year-old dealing with his first concussion, because traumatic brain injuries are mysterious things, and because the reward of getting Svechnikov back in the lineup – whether that’s Saturday or Monday or even Wednesday – may not be worth the risk of another concussion in such short succession.

No one can live or play in fear, and at some point, assuming he continues to show no post-concussive symptoms, Svechnikov will be back on the ice. But with everything ahead of him in his career, with the weight this franchise has placed on his shoulders, with the potential he carries with him, a little patience wouldn’t hurt.

Every traumatic brain injury is a thing unto itself, and while broad conclusions can be drawn, narrow ones cannot.

It’s possible the shock to Svechnikov’s brain was so brief and so transitory that he was fine the moment he regained consciousness, if he ever did fully lose it. A glancing blow can knock a player out for years; a straight shot to the chin can do less damage.

Medically speaking, if Svechnikov is symptom-free and shows no signs of vision or balance deficits, there’s no reason to keep him off the ice. Practically speaking, there’s every reason to move with all deliberateness and an excess of caution. There’s too much on the line in the future to act cavalierly with his future now.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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