Will concussions keep phenom Patrik Stefan from being the No. 1 pick?
In the catalog of hockey injuries no entry is more ominous than the concussion. Over the past five years head injuries have ended the careers of probable Hall of Famers Dave Taylor (1994) and Pat LaFontaine ('98); cut down promising Brett Lindros, who played only 51 NHL games before retiring in '96; and scotched the potential trade of Panthers center Rob Niedermayer to the Maple Leafs last summer. Now concussions are having an impact on the June 26 entry draft.
By far the most talented player available is 18-year-old Patrik Stefan, a 6' 1", 205-pound center from the Czech Republic who played this season for the Long Beach ( Calif.) Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League ( IHL). Yet Stefan may not be selected first. In a game against the Houston Aeros on Nov. 27 he was belted near the crease and suffered a concussion and spinal injury that sidelined him for three months. Then, in a March 31 game against the Las Vegas Thunder, he accidentally collided with Thunder center Kevin Kaminski and sustained another, more severe concussion that ended his season.
" Stefan's a great player who could play in the NHL right away," says Lightning general manager Jacques Demers, whose team has the best odds of winning the lottery for the first pick in the draft, "but any time you're talking about concussions, you have to be careful. It's cause for alarm."
Concussions are unlike most other injuries because measuring their lingering effects is difficult. Most doctors believe that each concussion makes the victim more vulnerable to incurring another one and that the danger of lasting debilitation increases each time the brain is slammed against the inside of the skull. Some scouts project that Stefan, the Central Scouting service's top-rated prospect, could slip to sixth or seventh in the draft. "If he'd had a shoulder or knee injury, it would be different," says Blues general manager Larry Pleau, whose son, Steve, abandoned his college hockey career because of postconcussion syndrome. "You can examine a knee, and a doctor can evaluate it. That's difficult to do with a concussion. And it's not one concussion he's had, it's two."
It may be impossible for teams to test Stefan, anyhow. He's home in the Czech Republic and symptom-free, according to his Edmonton-based agent, Rich Winter, and he won't come to Canada until early June, when he'll be reevaluated by a specialist. Winter hasn't decided whether to make that doctor's findings public or allow teams to examine Stefan. He may bank on Stefan's skill being so outstanding that clubs will be afraid to pass on him despite his two concussions.
One reason that Stefan is so well regarded is that he has proved himself in the high-level IHL, putting up 35 points in 33 games against seasoned opponents. (The other top prospects, forwards Pavel Brendl of the Czech Republic and Daniel and Patrik Sedin of Sweden, have played only against less experienced players.) In his attempt to speed his development, however, Stefan put himself at risk. There are obvious dangers to an 18-year-old's cutting his teeth against players who are a) far more physically developed and b) borderline NHLers happy to make a name for themselves by taking on a high-profile prospect. While there's no evidence of anyone's targeting Stefan, consider that Kaminski, 30, has appeared in 139 NHL games over seven seasons and has thrived in the minor leagues as an enforcer.
If Stefan gets selected with the No. 1 pick it will be further testament to his ability. Says Mighty Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier of Anaheim's approach to the draft: "At our scouting meetings, when we finalize the list [of potential draftees], I specifically ask our scouts, 'Anybody on the list with a history of concussions?' "
Sadly, this year's list includes Stefan.
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