March 14, 2011
The NHL General Manager meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. began with a tangible change to the League's current policy on concussions: Any player showing concussion symptoms must be examined by a doctor in the locker room.
Changing the diagnosis is a positive, vital step … because the NHL has found identifying the cause to be a tad more complicated.
According to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, 26 percent of the concussions this season are accidentally caused via pucks to the head, players tripping, etc.; 44 percent are from legal hits, meaning mostly with the body.
"So 70 are from either accidental causes or legal hits. Seventeen are from illegal hits, 8 percent from fighting and 14 percent from illegal hits to the head. What this tells you is that there is no one silver bullet to what is causing concussions," he said.
"It's a long-winded way of telling you that this notion that the players have no respect for each other and the players are going around hitting each other in the head on a regular basis, and that is what is causing concern, just isn't accurate."
So while that facet of the player safety debate remains unknown, the NHL and Bettman turned to what they can tangibly prove or improve.
He presented a Five-Point Plan for Player Safety today; coming up, a look at whether each step is a positive one.
Step 1: Equipment
"Brendan Shanahan will continue to work and lead the effort with the Players Association to see what we can do to get equipment perhaps a little smaller. We don't want to jeopardize player protection, but we want to make sure that equipment isn't too large and in a position to make players in a position where the hits that they do can cause more damage."
Going after the equipment has been a hallmark of these player safety debates, which is ironic when you consider that modern protective equipment is safer than ever for the wearer -- yet potentially more injurious than ever for the player being hit.
As the NHL All-Star Game revamp showed, Shanahan is an effective liaison with the NHLPA. But altering the equipment's always a political muddle; witness the ages-old "shrinking the goalies" movement that's gotten annual blow-back from the NHLPA, for safety's sake.
Step 2: Concussions
"The concussion protocol has been revised to ensure that a player who has shown certain objective symptoms or has been involved in certain situations is taken off the ice into a quiet place to be evaluated by a team physician under the SCAT-2 procedures. As you may recall, we are the first sports league that has had a protocol for the diagnosis and return-to-play decisions. We are the first sports league that has done baseline testing with respect to concussions. This is just one of another series of steps.
"The implementation of this may take a few days because we want to do some conference calls with the trainers and physicians who will be involved. But the protocol has been amended and it will be enforced.
"We will, from a league standpoint, monitor to make sure that it's being complied with. If it's not being complied with, appropriate sanctions will be levied."
T-minus to the first GM or coach bitching about concussion protocol "robbing" them of a perfectly healthy player in the third period of a key game in 3…2…
You'd hope they wouldn't be petty about what is a common sense solution to the concussion problem, but you never know. It's the natural evolution of diagnosis on the bench: The coach allowing the player to say "I'm fine" to the trainer giving him clearance to, now, a physician being the one to make the call.
Again, common sense and a positive change.
Step 3: Penalties For Enablers of Repeat Offenders
"I will be discussing with the Board of Governors at the June meetings the fact that I intend to, for next season, provide that clubs will ultimately be responsible for the acts of their players so that if a player or players on a club are the subjects of repeat disciplinary procedures and resultant supplemental discipline, ultimately it is the club and perhaps the coach that will be held responsible."
In discussing the Trevor Gillies(notes) situation with some current and ex-players, many of them saw him as a grunt playing the role he's (a) paid to play by the GM and (b) sent out to play by the coach.
Making those individuals culpable for his actions, or the actions of any player who crosses the line more than once in a same season, is creating a sense of responsibility on the local level to knock this [expletive] off. Which is something that isn't there right now.
Step 4: The Rink
"In light of what happened in Montréal, we are in the process of seeking to retain a safety engineer to evaluate the playing area and to see what we can do to soften it up.
"We have either agreed or required that all the clubs for next season that don't currently have Plexi as opposed to seamless in the ends switch over to Plexiglas. There are six of those clubs that will be making the change in the ends. There are another five clubs that use seamless on the sides. We'll be taking a look as to whether we're going to go all Plexi for next year. That effort was undertaken a while ago and will be ready for next season. The safety engineer is going to be looking at what actually can be done in the playing environment to do what I said: soften it up.
"In the interim, I've asked the clubs to consult with their buildings to see what they can identify in the short-term that can make the playing environment safer for the players even in the interim."
It took Max Pacioretty(notes) breaking his neck, but the NHL has apparently decided there can be some safety improvements around the playing surface. The glass improvements are fine; but don't go evoking Montreal if there aren't going to be real solutions to the turnbuckle/stanchion issue.
Step 5: Committee
"To continue the efforts that will be here today, to work with the Players Association, to report back to the general managers, Competition Committee, and ultimately the board, there will be an ongoing committee to work on these issues consisting of Brendan Shanahan(notes), Rob Blake(notes), Joe Nieuwendyk, and Steve Yzerman. If there's a common thread among those four people, it is one in addition to being either senior or club officials, they're all Hall of Fame-eligible players, quality players who have played the game in the rules coming back from the work stoppage, and I think it's important to have them involved on an ongoing basis. "
OK, but is it a blue ribbon panel? That's what we want to know.
Hopefully this is a group that expands into some kind of quasi-competition committee that includes current players.
As Bettman said today: "We're not going to hurtle through this just to get it done. The key is to get it right."
And in this climate in the NHL, the key is to change what you can change at the moment and not to overreact. So far, so good for the GMs and the NHL.