No cure for concussions, but the headache fades for NHL: 'It's a lot better'

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NHL hockey commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, after attending an NHL owners meeting in Boca Raton Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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BOCA RATON, Fla. — For three straight years, the NHL’s general managers were consumed by concussions at their annual March meeting. They debated ideas. They made changes.

The last two years? The subject wasn’t discussed much, if at all.

“It doesn’t need to be,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “It hasn’t been 100-percent fixed. Nothing gets 100-percent fixed. But the players have done a good job adjusting to it, and it’s a lot better.”

The GMs did receive an update Wednesday on concussion lawsuits filed by former players, who claim the league didn’t do enough to inform them about and protect them from brain trauma in the past.

There are still hits to the head, but NHL rule changes have had an effect on players' behavior. (USA Today)
There are still hits to the head, but NHL rule changes have had an effect on players' behavior. (USA Today)

The legal and moral issues aren’t going away. The science isn’t, either.

And to be sure, there are still hits to the head. There are still suspensions. There are still fights. There are still players who lie about concussions and teams who don’t follow protocol strictly enough, and the problem tends to increase down the stretch and into the playoffs.

But the league’s efforts have had an effect.

During the Stanley Cup Final last year, commissioner Gary Bettman said concussions had declined by “moderate to low double-digits as a percentage” that season and man-games lost to concussions had declined by “probably about half.”

On Wednesday, Bettman told Yahoo Sports: “Concussions are not on the rise, to the contrary, and the number of man-games lost is down again. I’m not giving you numbers.”

Bettman has always refused to give hard data for privacy and legal reasons.

But based on anecdotal evidence and other data, players have changed their behavior. They have adjusted to new rules and learned from the department of player safety, now in its fourth season of existence. They know where the line is – or at least have a better idea of where it is. The disciplinary process has become routine.

Some hits that were legal in the past aren’t legal anymore. Players have seen enough examples – thanks to video explanations of suspensions – and they have had enough time to change their habits.

“The players are doing a good job of trying to stay away from hits to the head,” Rutherford said. “The game’s so fast, some hits are going to be where a follow-through will go up and hit a guy in the head. But we don’t have nearly as many deliberate hits to the head as we did prior to this discussion.”

Players aren’t putting themselves in vulnerable positions as often, either. That could be concussion awareness. That could be changing habits. That could also be because the hockey operations department has cracked down on diving this season by keeping a list, issuing fines to repeat offenders and announcing the fines publicly. There is less incentive to try to draw a call by, say, turning your back along the boards.

“I think it’s just been the evolution of playing smarter and not putting yourself in bad positions, and then when you are in a bad position, your opposition respecting it,” said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

Penalties are down. The NHL averaged 7.3 penalties per game through Tuesday night. It averaged 7.6 at the same point each of the last three seasons and 8.1 at the same point in 2010-11.

It’s not because the referees have been lax.

“The guys on the ice are the ones who make the game safer,” said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “When you say there aren’t as many penalties anymore, well, there’s not as many infractions anymore, and that’s why.”

Suspensions are down. The NHL issued 24 suspensions for a total of 70 games missed through Sunday night (plus a four-gamer to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri on Wednesday for an illegal check to the head). It issued 30 suspensions for a total of 125 games missed at the same point last season.

Peace breaks out in NHL in 2014-15: Fighting is down, penalties are down, suspensions are down. (AP)
Peace breaks out in NHL in 2014-15: Fighting is down, penalties are down, suspensions are down. (AP)

Not everyone has been happy with every decision. But generally the transition from Brendan Shanahan to Stephane Quintal has been smooth this season. Bettman said the NHL had been “very happy” with Quintal’s performance as disciplinarian.

“It’s been a good year so far,” said Quintal in French. “We were able to stay away from any major controversy in our decisions, but mostly we are happy with the better communication that we have with the players.”

Fighting is down, too. Through Tuesday night, fighting majors had decreased 14 percent from the same point last season and 29 percent from the same point in 2012-13. Through Feb. 4, only 24.9 percent of players had at least one fighting major this season, the lowest amount since 1990-91. It was 42.3 percent in 1996-97 and has been declining steadily.

That seems to be a natural byproduct of a number of things – from mandatory visors for incoming players and wider hash marks separating players on faceoffs, to the speed and skill of the game and the parity in the standings. Few teams employ enforcers anymore because they can’t afford fourth-liners who can’t play.

“Used to be, everybody had three lines,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. “Then some teams had four lines of skilled players, and they started to win. You’ve got to keep up.”

“If you get carried away with fighting,” Rutherford said, “it can cost you games.”

The decline in penalties has led to a decline in power plays. The NHL averaged 6.2 per game through Tuesday night. That’s down from 6.6 the previous two seasons, 6.7 in 2011-12 and 7.2 in 2010-11.

But there has been virtually no effect on offense. Teams had converted on 18.6 percent of their power plays through Tuesday night, the highest rate in the last five years, and that helped scoring remain essentially flat overall.

The NHL averaged 5.5 goals per game through Tuesday night. It averaged 5.5 last season, 5.4 the season before, 5.5 the season before that and 5.6 the season before that.

The GMs felt free to focus on things like 3-on-3 overtime and goalie interference.

“The game’s in great shape,” said Nashville Predators GM David Poile. “Right now I’d say ‘tweak’ is more the operable word than ‘change.’ The skill is probably the highest it has ever been in the game.”

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