In another sign of the growing concern about head trauma in sports, the NHL and the U.S. ski team will each have at least one concussion expert at the Sochi Olympics.
Dr. Jeff Kutcher, a Michigan-based neurologist, will be in one of two hockey arenas and the on-hill physician for three events on the slopes in Russia. U.S. ski team medical director Kyle Wilkens said Kutcher will be the association's first specialist evaluating and treating concussions during the Winter Olympics.
"It's such a hot topic," Wilkens said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We're trying to do the right thing with concussion, and that's why he's on board." Kutcher will also evaluate the neurological health of about 150 NHL players from all 12 countries in the Olympics. Dr. Ruben Echemendia, a neuropsychologist and chair of the NHL's concussion program, will also be at the Olympics — a first for the league, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
The NHL isn't fond of freezing its league for two-plus weeks and putting their stars at risk for injuries at the Olympics, but the league and the NHL Players' Association both have a degree of comfort knowing that Kutcher will be there.
"Dr. Kutcher is well regarded in his field and has significant experience working with NHL players, so we are pleased he will be in Sochi and is willing to assist with our players while at the games," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said.
Kutcher said he is prepared to tell an athlete he or she can't go for a medal if they have a concussion at the Olympics. "At the end of the day the decisions that we make, we make irrespective of the situation — we have to," Kutcher said in an interview with the AP. "The alternative is if I let somebody go down another run or participate in a hockey game while they're injured and that injury leads to a more significant injury, it could be life-changing in the negative. That's what I have to worry about."
International Olympic Committee medical director Dr. Richard Budgett is glad Kutcher will be there, too. "I haven't heard of any other country sending a specialist such as a neurologist," Budgett told the AP in a telephone interview. "But it's good that they've got a specialist coming out because there's a lot of interest in monitoring concussions. The Olympics are like a fish bowl — with everybody watching — so it's great that he will be able to raise awareness and show that we're taking the health of our athletes seriously."
Kutcher appears to be highly qualified for his pressure-packed role this month. The NBA named him director of its concussion program more than two years ago. Kutcher said he evaluates players from the NBA, NHL and NFL "all the time." The NCAA has used his expertise to help shape its concussion policies. Kutcher's day job is working as an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan, where he is a physician for the school's athletic teams and director of its NeuroSport Program.
Wilkens said Kutcher, who has helped the U.S. ski team with its concussion policy, will be the on-hill physician for skicross along with snowboarding's parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom. Kutcher will also care for other U.S. athletes as needed, according to Wilkens.
"His primary responsibility is with us, but if a slider gets a concussion, for example, Jeff will be there to help," Wilkens said. "For the two weeks, we're all a part of Team USA." Kutcher has diagnosed numerous athletes with concussions over the years, telling them they can't compete until he clears them. Kutcher, though, hasn't had to dash anyone's dreams of winning Olympic gold.
"I do feel a little bit of pressure," he said. "I understand the gravity of the situation and needing to first and foremost do my job as a neurologist regardless of setting or scenario. It doesn't matter if it's a training run or a gold-medal run or any scenario at all. It is the health of the athletes that I'm there for."
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