NHL takes subtle approach to game's safety

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

BOCA RATON, Fla. – There will be no ban on hits to the head. There might be one some day, but it won’t be today or tomorrow or next season. There will be no quick and easy satisfaction for all the critics of player safety in the NHL, because there is no quick and easy solution to the concussion issue.

And because, frankly, the majority of general managers just aren’t ready to remove that element of physical play from the game, even though a study by the hockey operations department showed that 14 percent of concussions through March 1 resulted from legal hits to the head.

After two days of meetings at the Boca Beach Club, it is clear that the changes will be more subtle – like stricter enforcement of penalties for boarding and charging, larger fines and suspensions for dangerous plays, and perhaps even a wider definition of the rule instituted last year banning blindside hits to the head.

Could the NHL better protect the players by actually taking the word “head” out of what has been called the “headshot” rule? The GMs are talking about it, because even a shoulder-to-shoulder blindside hit can cause a concussion, the whiplash shaking the head of the unsuspecting player and rattling the brain in the skull.

Will subtle be enough?

“We’re going to see,” said the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ray Shero, one GM advocating for a ban on hits to the head. “It’s hard to change the game on the fly. That is for sure. But I think there is certainly the appetite from the managers to have a safer environment.”

The thing is, the NHL has changed the game on the fly before. It is why the game is where it is today – for better and for worse – and the GMs hope the lessons learned will help address the current problem.

After the lockout of 2004-05, the NHL opened up the game by enforcing rules already in the book – like hooking, holding and obstruction – while removing the red line for offside passes and instituting a trapezoid behind the net that restricted the goaltenders’ area for playing the puck behind the goal line.

It took time for the coaches and players to adjust. There were too many penalties. There wasn’t enough physical play. “I recall the first year or two coming out of the work stoppage, people were calling us, the NHL, the No Hit League,” said Brendan Shanahan(notes), then a leading voice for change as a player, now the league’s vice-president of hockey and business development.

But the coaches and players did adjust. The game opened up. The speed picked up. Then the coaches and players went beyond adjusting to the new rules to taking advantage of them, and along came unintended consequences. Modern players – already bigger and stronger – started moving faster, hitting more often and hitting more violently.

New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello gave one example: Without the red line, teams started using the stretch pass to get the puck to the opposite blue line. They started to chip in the puck from there, with forecheckers flying in on top of a defensemen who had no help from their goalie. Collisions behind the goal line have become a big concern, and the hockey ops study showed more than half of concussions caused by legal hits involved a secondary impact with the boards or glass.

The GMs talked about slowing the game down again. Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray said he brought up the red line in his discussion group. He said the group talked about the trapezoid. He said Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman brought up the idea of allowing a defenseman to hold up a forechecker if they were going back equally. But the feeling was that if you allow a little obstruction to creep back into the game, a lot will follow.

“I think the solution for player safety is not to go backwards,” Shanahan said. “Then we’re just chasing our tails. Let’s start obstructing again. In five years, we’ll have another one of these meetings, and we’ll talk about unlocking the game.”

The GMs want to keep the speed. “I used the analogy the other day about accidents on the highway,” Lamoriello said. “You want no accidents? Nobody can drive more than 20 miles per hour.” But like with highway safety, the key to player safety is keep that speed under control with well-defined lines and tough penalties for straying beyond them.

It seems a ban on hits to the head would define the lines pretty well. It would remove the gray area between illegal east-west hits and legal north-south hits. But league officials and GMs have philosophical and practical concerns. Shanahan said he is not in favor of a two-minute penalty for head hits.

“I don’t think it’s realistic,” Shanahan said. “I think defenders defend standing up and forwards attack bent over. I think that there are other things we can do first.”

In their discussion groups Tuesday morning, the GMs went over the language for boarding and charging penalties sentence by sentence. “Prior to today’s meeting,” said Yzerman, a Hall of Famer who played for more than two decades, “I had maybe read the rule before or maybe heard the rule before, but not specifically understood it.” Yzerman wasn’t the only one who learned something. “Especially with charging, everybody has this whole thing in mind that it’s three steps,” Shero said. “It’s not in the rule book. So people have that wrong.”

The general feeling is that the boarding and charging rules already in the book – maybe with some tweaking – could be enforced more strictly, the way the hooking, holding and obstruction rules were after the lockout. The general feeling is that the players would adjust, as they did after the lockout.

And if they don’t adjust, they will have to pay a higher price than they have in the past. “We’ve encouraged a little longer suspension in the case that requires a suspension,” Murray said. “If a guy intends to run an opponent through the boards and it appears it’s something that’s suspendable, rather than give him two games, give him four games,” Murray said. “The message may get across.”

And if the message doesn’t get across, the team will have to pay the price as well. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been working on a way to hold teams accountable for repeat offenders through fines.

“Even back when I was on the competition committee as a player coming out of the work stoppage, we said, ‘These are the rules. We think that these are going to improve the game, unlock the game. But this isn’t the finish line,’ ” Shanahan said. “Players and coaches are smart. They evolve. The game evolves. I don’t think you ever sort of say, ‘Here are the rules for the next 100 years.’ I think you constantly have to monitor them and evolve with them.”

The NHL continues to evolve, but more slowly – and less boldly – than some people would like.

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