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NHL GMs check their emotions, biases to address safety

BOCA RATON, Fla. – The check? That was picked up by Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Yzerman, who hosted a group of their fellow general managers and members of the NHL’s hockey operations department at a sports bar Tuesday night. Considering Nieuwendyk is in his second season with the Dallas Stars and Yzerman his first with the Tampa Bay Lightning, this might as well have been the GMs’ version of a rookie dinner.

“It’s nice when forwards get off their wallet,” joked San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, a former NHL defenseman. “It doesn’t happen all the time.”

The checks? Those were picked up on by all of the 20 or so packed together at one end of the joint. Over chicken wings and beers, the GMs and the hockey ops people saw the same types of questionable hits and incidents along the boards that have regular Joes talking in taverns wherever hockey is on television. They saw the same types of things they had been debating at their formal meetings at the posh Boca Beach Club.

“If there was stuff that was related or connected to some of the discussions we’ve had, someone would yell over to someone else,” Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. “There’s congeniality. There’s camaraderie. But everyone is on the edge of their seat, because your team is playing and you want to win.”

Every night, there are guys in a bar watching the NHL. Every night, there are guys in a bar rooting for their team to win and ranting about how their team has been wronged. Every night, there are guys in a bar who see problems with the game and think they have all the answers.

But on this night, in this bar, the guys watching the NHL actually ran those teams on the screens and actually were responsible for finding the solutions to the problems in the game. And if there is one positive to take from the three days of meetings that wrapped up Wednesday, it’s that the GMs could share the fans’ passion but put their self-interest aside and make a sincere effort to address the issue of player safety.

“Like I think all of you, we sit there and we have our opinions on a play,” Yzerman said. “We’ll sit there side by side and talk about it and have a different opinion on the play. So I don’t think we’re much different than media, other people, fans. Everybody has a slightly different take on a lot of these things.”

To a lot of people, the outcome of the general managers’ meetings was underwhelming. In Pittsburgh, where Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) is just starting to skate again after suffering a concussion tied to two hits in early January, they aren’t getting a ban on all hits to the head. In Montreal, where Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty(notes) is recovering from a concussion and fractured vertebra after being hit into a stanchion by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara(notes) last week, they aren’t getting any action that would make such a play illegal in the future.

But the GMs did agree to examine whether the league should expand Rule 48, which bans blindside hits to the head, to include more hits that are dangerous to vulnerable players. They did recommend stricter enforcement of boarding and charging penalties, plus larger fines and longer suspensions for rule-breakers. They did talk about reducing the size of equipment on players and making arenas safer. Commissioner Gary Bettman did say he was working on a plan to hold teams accountable for their players’ actions through fines, and the league already has strengthened its return-to-play protocol, requiring players suspected of having a concussion to be taken to a quiet area and examined by a doctor.

The GMs could have done more. But they were wise not to react to public pressure or any single incident, and they were smart to go over a detailed statistical analysis of concussions prepared by the hockey operations department to determine exactly where they might be able to tweak things – trying to make a difference in the game without making the game too different.

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford came to the meetings leaning toward a ban on hits to the head, which some still want, like the Penguins’ Ray Shero and the Buffalo Sabres’ Darcy Regier. But Rutherford left saying he was OK with what the GMs had done.

“We may get to that point [where all hits to the head are illegal],” Rutherford said. “But let’s see what this step does now to maybe limit a lot of these hits that we’ve seen.”

Every night, there are controversial plays. On Tuesday night, there was more than one in the Dallas-San Jose game alone. Nieuwendyk and Wilson were sitting together at the bar when Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray(notes) clocked Stars winger Loui Eriksson(notes), Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) of the Stars drilled San Jose’s Niclas Wallin(notes) into the boards from behind, and the Sharks’ Dany Heatley(notes) elbowed the Stars’ Steve Ott(notes).

“I think we both took a sip of our beer and looked at each other at several different moments,” Wilson said.

But Niewendyk and Wilson mostly kept quiet out of professional respect for each other, as did Chiarelli and Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson as their teams battled each other up on the screen. The Bruins’ Brad Marchand(notes) decked the Jackets’ R.J. Umberger(notes). Howson didn’t give Chiarelli the evil eye.

“It’s good that everyone gets together so you can kind of share your thoughts in a little less formal stage,” Chiarelli said. “That stuff might turn into something serious later on.”

Too often GMs, players and coaches view plays only through the prism of their teams. If something happens to their player, it was illegal. If their player did something, it was an accident. When someone says anything against another member of his team, he is vilified for breaking the code. Just ask Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference(notes), who dared to say teammate Daniel Paille(notes) threw a “bad hit” on the Stars’ Raymond Sawada(notes) in February.

In this setting, though, the GMs took a detached view, whether in the conference room or the sports bar. Their teams are coming down the stretch and the standings are tight. The playoffs are quickly approaching. But the trade deadline has passed, the GMs’ heavy lifting is done and this is the time for the GMs to talk about the larger issues.

“What you’re trying to look at it is the totality of how the game is played,” Wilson said. “When we make our decisions in meetings like this, it’s not based on self-interest or emotion, and it shouldn’t be.”

Well, at least until the bill comes for the wings and beers.