What really happened to Max Pacioretty?

A lab recreation of a hit like the one Pacioretty suffered shows that he might recover faster than Sidney Crosby

What really happened to Max?

Shaun Best/Reuters; Andrew Post/Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory/University of Ottawa

By now, the stomach-churning footage of Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens slamming headfirst into a post during an NHL game on March 8 is well-known. The hit, delivered by Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, happened in less than a second, but it took several unnerving minutes for medical personnel and teammates to carry an unconscious Pacioretty off the ice. Doctors later diagnosed him with a concussion and a fractured vertebra, from which he is still recovering. Considering the powerful collision, it’s stunning that the 22-year-old wasn’t hurt worse or even killed, as many fans and players feared that night.

But to truly marvel at the dangerous blow that Pacioretty survived, one must watch a precise five-second black and white video just created by scientists at the University of Ottawa. Led by Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the elite Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory, researchers have reconstructed a hit similar to the Pacioretty-Chara one. The footage shows a dummy head wearing a helmet similar to the one Pacioretty uses. A metal rod covered in two-inch foam mimics the padded stanchion that Pacioretty struck. An air compressor unleashes the rod on the head form, which is pummelled at the exact same speed and location as when Pacioretty rammed into the post. The impact launches the dummy into a sideways extension—the neck stretches until it’s perpendicular to the rod, before the head form snaps back and slightly rotates.


Witnessing the hit recreated in the isolation of a lab makes it all the more disturbing to watch. But for Hoshizaki, the goal is scientific. His team is determined to understand the relationship between brain injuries such as concussions, helmet performance, and the risky hits that hockey players give and take during a game—and to find out whether equipment should be improved or whether certain hits should be banned in the future.

What really happened to Max?

YOUTUBE; Andrew Post/Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory/University of Ottawa

The Pacioretty-Chara reconstruction confirms that hockey helmets excel at preventing catastrophic brain injuries such as skull fractures and subdural hematomas, which are caused by “linear acceleration” (which happens when players fall and hit the ice or receive an impact directly through their centre of mass). On the other hand, it also demonstrates that helmets are not built to prevent mild traumatic brain injuries such as concussions, which are caused primarily by “angular acceleration” (a rotational impact such as when a boxer throws a hook punch to the side of an opponent’s head).

What’s more, this reconstruction explains why Pacioretty will probably recover from his concussion faster than superstar Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has been sidelined since Jan. 5. As Maclean’s recently reported, Hoshizaki’s team has reconstructed the first of two hits to the head that preceded Crosby’s concussion diagnosis. That hit occurred on New Year’s Day, when David Steckel (then of the Washington Capitals, now playing for the New Jersey Devils) collided with Crosby—shoulder to the left side of the head—and sent him flipping through the air and crashing onto the ice.

By comparing the two reconstructions, especially the 3-D brain models generated by sensors inside the dummy, Hoshizaki’s team can see the different risk of brain tissue damage each player might have experienced. The results are as fascinating as they are perplexing: the brain model from the Crosby reconstruction shows a rainbow of tissue stress, while the brain model from the Pacioretty reconstruction is mostly blue, representing less risk of tissue damage.

Hoshizaki suggests that although the Pacioretty-Chara hit happened at a higher speed than the Crosby-Steckel one (36 km/h versus 27 km/h), and even though Pacioretty was knocked out, the angular acceleration lasted longer in the case of Crosby than Pacioretty (20 milliseconds compared to seven milliseconds, respectively). Since angular acceleration is so closely connected to the risk of concussion, that might explain why the brain model generated by the Crosby-Steckel reconstruction indicates so much more tissue stress. As well, the researchers hypothesize that the location of the impact on each player’s head may explain why the tissue damage varies. Hoshizaki says that the front of the brain, such as where Pacioretty was hit, may be more robust than the sides, which is where Crosby was struck.

Going forward, Hoshizaki’s team are working toward mapping which parts of the brain are most vulnerable to hits to the head. Meanwhile, fans await the return of Pacioretty and Crosby—whenever that might be.


What really happened to Max Pacioretty?

  1. If those scientists are right, I'm glad for Mr. Pacioretti. Still, I hope he and the Canadiens will show wisdom and not have him come back to the game too soon. I don't know when 'too soon' might be but, from my much less informed position, I hope that his return will be no earlier than next fall at the training camp.

    Nevertheless, that avoids the issue of concussions as a whole. That contacts that lead to these events are given a small importance by all involved in the NHL (owners, executives, coaches & yes, the playerse themselves) borders on irresponsibility. What would be the impact of having a major draw like Sydney Crosby be permanently sidelined of to suffer the same post-concussion symptoms as a number of players who retired due to concussions? Somehow, I believe that this would be counted as an 'isolated' incident by most people directly involved with the league.

    In any case, I hope that these studies actually lead to technological developments to help eliminate as many concussions as possible. Even more important, it is hoped that these studies will make the knowledge around the causes and effects of concussions will lead the league to make clearer rules and more strongly enforced rulings on incidents that lead to these kinds of 'incidents'.

    • We tend not to take concussions very seriously, M. Brazeau, because concussions are still not properly understood. When I was about ten years old, I saw a friend of mine go flying into the windshield of a car when he got hit crossing the street. When they took him to hospital, the doctor said it was "just a concussion."

      Now we are learning that sometimes it isn't "just a concussion," but something that could be potentially more serious. Eric Lindros, who played for the Flyers and the Rangers, had his career cut short because of a series of concussions. Bobby Clarke, the General Manager of the Flyers, once called Lindros a wimp for complaining of debilitating headaches and relying on his father, in effect, to exercise power of attorney.

      Sydney Crosby is the victim of a star system that idolizes him excessively on the one hand and then cuts him down to size when he shows himself to be human by going down because of a concussion. Like Lindros, Crosby's career may have been cut short because of concussion.

      We should be glad that Max Pacioretty's injury seems not be as serious as it was feared. However, he also suffered a fracture in the fourth vertebra. In layman's terms, he broke his neck.

      I doubt that Pacioretty will be back.

      • Thanks for the response, Sam.

        I know that this isn't a directly related issue but I remember the interview where Clarke said what he did about Lindros. That comment ranked up there (or down there, if you wish) with a comment I read about a 1950's NHL coach who'se response to one of his players when the latter complained of broken-bone kind of pain in his leg. The coach's response was (word for word): "Tape an aspirin to it and get out there!"

        It's that kind of attitude that's still around by people who have little to no respect for the others in their same profession.

        I look forward to Bobby Clarke's retirement.

  2. Someone should send this to "Dr." Mark Recchi.

  3. Here's what this article doesn't articulate. We have the technology to produce a better helmet. In fact that technology was developed in this Ottawa lab. The reason the helmet manufacturers don't use a better technology is simple. People sue for death. They don't sue for concussion.

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