NHL general managers say they’ve gone almost as far as they can to eliminate concussions
BOCA RATON, Fla.—The video clip was paused on the flat-screen televisions in the middle of the ring of tables. Brendan Shanahan wanted to make a point to a group of reporters, as he had made to the NHL’s general managers during their meetings Monday.
Here was Shawn Thornton, the toughest of the big, bad Boston Bruins. He was at home at TD Garden, with the crowd roaring in the third period of a tie game against the ancient rival Montreal Canadiens. He had a hit lined up in the corner.
Habs villain P.K. Subban.
“So you know he wants to finish this check and he would love to finish it hard,” said Shanahan, the NHL’s senior vice president of player safety. “Maybe a few years ago, he would have finished it right in the nameplate, right in the numbers.”
The clip rolled. Thornton coasted in, took a subtle step to his right and drove to his left to smash Subban. He didn’t hit him from behind. He didn’t drill him into the boards. He didn’t do anything illegal. Still, he landed a good, hard check.
To Shanahan, this was the best of many examples showing the NHL is on the right track - changing players’ behavior and increasing player safety, while keeping the game intense and physical.
That anecdotal evidence is backed up by hard data: Concussions have not increased at the same time hits have not decreased.
And so the general managers seem to have reached the point where they are past making major changes and are down to making tweaks. Though they want concussions to decrease, they feel if they go much further hockey won’t be hockey anymore.
“If you look at the concussion issue, this is a full-contact sport,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “We’re never going to get it to zero. It wouldn’t be worth watching if it were at zero. What we want to do is take out the unnecessary ones, the senseless ones, which I think Brendan Shanahan is doing.”
It’s one thing for Burke to say that. He has long been a proponent of hard-nosed hockey, reminding everyone that there is no out of bounds and players accept the risks when they enter the arena.
But listen to Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who remains among the minority who would ban all contact to the head - giving a two-minute penalty for an incidental hit to the head, same as a minor for an incidental high stick.
“I don’t think this is something that’s getting worse,” Rutherford said. “I think it’s something that the league’s on top of, and there’s not a lot more that I think we can do at this point.”
Two years ago, the general managers’ meetings came shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke delivered a devastating blow to the Bruins’ Marc Savard. The league immediately banned blindside hits to the head. Concussions jumped dramatically from 2009-10 to 2010-11.
Last year, the GM meetings came shortly after the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara shoved the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty into a stanchion - while the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby was recovering from a concussion he suffered in the 2011 Winter Classic. The league immediately introduced a new concussion protocol requiring players to be tested if they showed symptoms.
After the season, the league outlawed all targeted hits to the head, broadened the boarding rule and created a department of player safety. Shanahan took over supplemental discipline from longtime executive Colin Campbell and began giving video explanations of each suspension.
Savard’s career appears to be over. Crosby has played eight games since, only now on the verge of a second comeback attempt. Many other players are suffering from concussions to various degrees, including stars like Chris Pronger, Nicklas Backstrom and Jonathan Toews.
The league declines to provide hard numbers. But compared to this point last season, the rate of concussions is flat and the man games lost to concussions is up, according to Kris King, the vice-president of hockey operations. The causes of concussions have been relatively consistent - down a little because of fights and accidents, up a little because of legal and illegal hits.
Shouldn’t the rate of concussions be lower after everything the league has done? Yes, of course. Ideally. But the diagnosis of concussions has become more aggressive while the treatment of them has become more conservative, which means more concussions are being caught and players are taking more time to return from them. And though the NHL has played more than 1,000 games this season, that is still a small sample size.
“We’d love to snap our fingers and for this to completely turn around, but we’re setting a course and we think it’s the right course,” Shanahan said. “Some of it takes time.”
Shanahan started out by levying suspension after suspension this season. Penalties were up early in the season, with the league averaging eight power plays per game. Hitting was down, with the league averaging 42 hits per game in October. It seemed like the league was cracking down and the players were spooked.
But Shanahan has always said his job is not to punish but to change behavior, and though he insists his standard hasn’t changed, he has been quieter lately. Power plays are down to 6.8 per game. Hits are back up to 45 per game - same as they were last season. The GMs think the guys are getting it.
“For the most part,” said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, “they figure out what they need to do to perform at the highest level and not do dumb things that might cost them or their team.”
The NHL and NHLPA continue to work with equipment manufacturers to develop better shoulder and elbow pads, and the GMs are discussing tweaks this week.
But only one potential rule change seems to have a realistic chance - hybrid icing, which would blow the play dead if the defensive player wins the race to an imaginary line at the faceoff dots, reducing the chance of accidents at the end boards.
The GMs are discussing reinstituting the red line to outlaw two-line offside passes, but there doesn’t seem to be much support. They don’t want teams to clog up the middle like they did before the red line was removed in 2005, and though the speed of the game is a concern, they doubt you can draw a straight red line to this problem.
“The red line has very little to do with concussions,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland.
The NHL could go the Rutherford route and outlaw all hits to the head. It could ban fighting, too. But only three percent of concussions have been caused by fighting this season, and there is little appetite for either idea among the GMs.
“Without fundamentally changing it, there’s not much you can do,” Rutherford said. “I mean, if you want to change the game to a non-contact sport, that may change it. But the game is what it is. It’s a good game.”
This is a dangerous game, and concussions will be an occupational hazard forever. Players have become bigger, stronger and faster, and no matter what the rules are, they will never become smaller, weaker or slower.
The league must continue trying to reduce the number of concussions and to treat those that occur appropriately, but hockey will always be hockey.
Until it isn’t.
“It’s supposed to be a hard game,” Holland said. “That’s why players play it. That’s why they love to play the game. I know when I talk to our players, they love the physicality. They love the hardness of the game within the rules, and again, I think that over the last two or three years we’ve done a lot of things… Now, can we find a way to get a few more concussions out of the game?”
A few more. That is the question now.