RALEIGH, N.C. -- With the noticeable absence of Penguins center Sidney Crosby from the NHL All-Star weekend here, the topic of concussions has served as a strong undercurrent to the fun and games.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed some intriguing trends Saturday that could cause ripples through the factions that are calling for a ban on hits to the head or other rules changes aimed at curbing concussions.
Crosby, the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game today, has been out since Jan. 5 because of a concussion and got clearance over the weekend to begin working out.
He hardly is alone in dealing with that particular type of brain injury this season.
Bettman said the board of governors was presented with a detailed update on concussions that included what he called "very preliminary data" that showed:
• Concussions are up this season, although he declined to divulge a number. It was 33 as of Dec. 1, and that was the same as a year earlier.
• The increase seems to be in the area of what Bettman called "accidental or inadvertent situations, as most do not involve any contact whatsoever with the victim's head by an opponent." Those would include collisions with teammates, stumbling into the boards, legal body checks where a player subsequently hits his head on the glass, boards or ice, and fighting.
• There is a decrease in concussions and man-games lost caused by blindside hits to the head, which were outlawed by the NHL in March, and by hits to the head still deemed legal by the league.
"It's preliminary," Bettman cautioned about the new data. "Some of it is judgmental. Some of it is definitional."
Bettman said there is no clear reason why concussions are up or why they are being caused by some of the aforementioned reasons.
He speculated about the increased speed of the game and mismatches in fights as two of any number of possible causes.
He said the league's general managers, at their March meetings, "will spend time figuring out what this all means and what, if anything, needs to be addressed."
At least one of those who heard the discussion at the board meeting came away still hoping for a ban on hits to the head, as long as the NHL can reasonably enforce such a rule.
"Will it alter the game? I don't think it will alter the game," Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse said.
"How enforceable is it in a fast-moving, physical sport? How reasonable is it to try to do that from a legislative perspective?
"I think it's worthy of very serious consideration. If it's something we could enforce, I think we should look at banning head shots."
Morehouse, of course, has seen the effect of a concussion on Crosby, who was leading the NHL in scoring when he was hurt and has missed nine games.
Toronto general manager Brian Burke, conversely, thinks talk of a ban on head shots is reactionary.
"Frankly, I think the biggest reason we're focused on concussions is because of Sidney," Burke said. "If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys all be around with cameras asking about concussions? I don't think so. I think we're on top of it. We have to watch it, obviously."
In addition to a further crackdown on hits to the head, such as a ban, there could be rules changes that look at equipment -- scaled-down shoulder pads, for instance.
Bettman played devil's advocate when asked directly about a ban on hits to the head.
"Changing a rule which may not actually be causing the concussions may not be the right thing to do," he said.
"Changing equipment may not be the right thing to do. We spend a lot of effort on this subject, but we need to be very professional, smart, thorough in dealing with it and not susceptible to a snap judgment."
He then immediately pointed out that it was something of a snap judgment that led to Rule 48, after what then was a legal hit by Penguins winger Matt Cooke left Boston's Marc Savard with a severe concussion -- and that Rule 48 seems to be working.
"As with all hockey fans, I'm unhappy about the fact that we have players who are not at the All-Star Game because of concussions," Bettman said.
"In fact, I don't like the fact that any players don't play or miss games because of concussions."
For now, though, the rules remain the same.
"This is an important matter," Bettman said. "We have treated it as such for years. And we will continue to treat it as such."