I remember the NHL’s greatest rivalry between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings. I remember it fondly, in fact. It was part of my formative years as a sports fan growing up after my first live hockey game was an Avalanche-Red Wings game that got me forever hooked on the sport.
The rivalry was captured brilliantly in Adrian Dater’s book, “Blood Feud”, and the name perfectly represented the hatred between the teams. The talent was immense, the hatred was real, but the blood spilled is what helped make the rivalry the stuff of legend.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we went back and watched the 1996 Western Conference Finals between Colorado and Detroit. It was the series that really kicked the rivalry off.
At the time, I was just excited to re-live an excellent series that Colorado eventually won en route to Denver’s first major pro sports championship. As we watched through it, though, I found myself recoiling at some of the violence and the commentary surrounding it.
Players were regularly taking hits that simply don’t exist in today’s game and if we do see them, they result in suspensions and more sympathetic responses, especially regarding hits to the head. Gone are the days of “it’s just a stinger” and in are the days of concussion spotters pulling players from games who insist they’re fine. It was a completely different mindset to players regularly getting hit in the head.
All of this brought me back to Bowen Byram, Colorado’s brilliant young defenseman who played just 19 games last season after Keegan Kolesar’s headshot into the boards left him with a concussion he battled through the offseason before reporting for training camp at the start of this season.
We saw multiple incidents with Byram this season, including the accidental hit to Byram’s face by Vancouver’s Bo Horvat and the very intentional hit from Minnesota’s Brandon Duhaime, and after some stops and starts with recovery from ongoing concussion issues, the Avalanche granted him a leave of absence.
At the time, we all kind of shrugged and agreed that it was a good move for him to take care of himself. Concussions are scary and unpredictable and Byram, at just 20-years-old, has an awful lot of life ahead of him outside the NHL to consider. Getting his head right seemed a logical call.
For once, it felt like a sign of tremendous progress in the NHL, a league that so frequently gets in its own way with inconsistent messaging that seems to hit the right buzzwords but never quite capture the spirit of the change.
In this case, we had a legit Stanley Cup contending hockey team telling its star-in-waiting, a player they were absolutely relying on to play a big role on the team this season, to simply go home and get better.
Consider where we were not that long ago.
The 2010s were a reckoning for the sport of hockey.
When Dr. Ann McKee, a neural pathologist from Boston University, diagnosed late former NHLer Reggie Fleming with chronic traumatic encephalopathy in late 2009, it became hockey’s first verified case of what we know as CTE and had previously been limited to football players and boxers.
While the league battled the legal ramifications of the link between hockey and CTE, it became clear that concussions were having a seriously detrimental effect on retired players. The premature deaths of Wade Belak (35), Rick Rypien (27) and Derek Boogaard (28) ripped through the sport as a sign things were terribly wrong.
The combination of Dr. McKee’s findings, the deaths of former players and the ongoing concussion issues of league darling Sidney Crosby all combined to lead to changes in how the games both polices and treats head injuries.
It seems the message was received that real changes needed to be made. They were, and I’d venture to say it is inarguably a better landscape today than in 2011 when Sidney had to leave the Winter Classic because of the kind of hit you don’t see nearly as often in the game anymore that began his concussion-related issues.
Looking back on that, it was still surprising the Avalanche left Byram’s recovery timeline entirely in Byram’s hands.
We live in a sports landscape that has been shaped significantly in the last decade by player empowerment. While it has been slower to move into the NHL (no shock given the team-first culture of the sport at every level), an NHL team simply turning over the keys to a player’s recovery is still a bit of a system shock.
Consider that Jack Eichel, a legitimate franchise-caliber player and the kind of talent that teams tear down rosters for a chance to draft, was signed long-term by one of the league’s most inept franchises in the Buffalo Sabres when he suffered a serious injury.
When Eichel wanted a surgery Buffalo’s team doctors were uncomfortable with, the team refused to allow it. The procedure hadn’t been attempted on an active NHL player, so there was uncertainty about how it would go, but the refusal created an inseparable rift between the organization and the player.
Fast forward to today and Eichel is back on the ice with his new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, following a trade and him getting the surgery he wanted. In a cruel twist of irony for him, he seems to be the only healthy player they have left out there at the moment.
Comparing Byram and Eichel, they certainly aren’t the same situations, with Eichel having multiple options to get healthy and Byram facing the uncertainty of concussion issues, but it’s nonetheless striking for the Avalanche to cede control of the situation. If there’s one thing sports teams traditionally value above all else, it’s control.
The team has allowed Byram to get comfortable at his own pace, first skating on his own, then with the team, then getting into full-contact practices with the team and eventually even traveling with the team on the road.
Now, Byram is back with the team after a recovery that really began after his last appearance on January 10 against the Seattle Kraken
Head coach Jared Bednar reiterated throughout the process that he wasn’t planning on playing Byram unless his young defenseman came to him and told him he was ready to go.
Something I’ve kept in mind throughout this process is the Avalanche might have been uniquely positioned to take this kind of approach after all of the concussion issues the organization has dealt with in recent years.
If you’re reading this, chances are good you remember the concussion recoveries that involved entire missed seasons from Joey Hishon and Conor Timmins. Also in there was free-agent signee Jesse Winchester, who got hurt in a preseason game in Calgary and never played in the NHL again.
On the flip side, Hishon had a lengthy pro career, though he admitted he was never quite the same after Brayden McNabb crushed him in the OHL Playoffs, and Timmins has battled other injuries but is now two years clear of his concussion problems. Those aren’t the only concussion issues in Avalanche history, of course, just some recent examples that might have helped push this situation to where it went.
Ultimately, this isn’t really about whether or not Byram remains healthy for the rest of his career. Everyone hopes he does, of course. It’s about where the NHL was and where it is now with regards to treating concussions.
The league still has plenty of room to continue trying to legislate headshots out of the game (none of the hits Byram received resulted in any form of further discipline from the league), but the steps taken that resulted in Byram controlling his own recovery process with assistance from his organization whenever he wanted should be a process other teams look to repeat.
While preventing head injuries in the first place is ideal, instituting better processes in a player’s recovery is also important. It shows the league is finally starting to make progress, however small, in the battle for player safety.