Penguins: Head shots remain a complicated issue

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Sidney Crosby hasn't played in a game for more than two months because of a concussion.

It could be at least that long -- or even longer -- before he does again.

How long Crosby's injury will keep him in street clothes isn't known because there's no way of accurately predicting when his symptoms will pass, but this much is clear: Head injuries, and the hits that cause them, are the most pressing matter facing the NHL these days.

The Penguins have a particular interest because they have Crosby and three other players on injured reserve with concussions, but it's also a concern for teams across North America.

"It's obviously a huge issue," Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "The best player in the world has been out indefinitely with a concussion. That's obviously terrible for our team and scary for the league."

The league's general managers are expected to spend a lot of time talking about concussions, blows to the head and related issues when they convene in West Palm Beach, Fla., early next week.

There certainly is plenty to talk about. So much that Penguins general manager Ray Shero isn't sure his peers will formulate a recommendation on rules changes, or any other facet of the issue, for the league's Board of Governors to consider.

"We just need to get down there and see what the heck we're talking about, and what we're going to come out of there with," he said. "Any recommendations, or if we make any progress, or if we just stay status quo."

Getting hits to the head out of the game entirely likely isn't a realistic goal. Things happen too quickly on the ice and there is contact -- say, a forearm that slides up to chin-level after being driven into the chest of an opponent -- that inadvertently develops into a blow to the head.

"You can fine guys, and that might slow it down," said Penguins winger Mike Rupp. "I guess that's a start. If you can limit the number of concussions, that's a step in the right direction."

Rupp is a big man whose game is built on a foundation of physical play. Still, he said he believes that a blanket ban on hits to the head -- with even accidental ones resulting in at least a minor penalty for the offending party -- could be "workable" in the NHL, and cited a sequence from the 3-2 victory Saturday in Boston as evidence of how behavior can be modified.

After Penguins winger Matt Cooke gave Bruins center Marc Savard a severe concussion with a blind-side hit to the head last March, the league introduced Rule 48, which mandates a major penalty and game misconduct (or match penalty) for anyone who delivers a "lateral or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact."

Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, who got a concussion when knocked into the boards by a hit from then-New York Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton last season, called Rule 48 "a big step in the right direction," and Rupp was contemplating it as he lined up a hit on Bruins forward Gregory Campbell.

"He was getting a pass in the slot, and I was coming from his opposite side," Rupp said. "My first thought was, 'He doesn't see me. I'm going to get a good hit here.'

"At the last second, I'm like, 'Is that a blind-side?' and I let up. I didn't need to hit him hard, because I just bumped him and he fell and I got the puck."

Rupp added, "If they could put an end to all first contact to the head, I think that would be a great start."

How widespread sentiment would be for such a dramatic adjustment to the rules isn't known, although the International Ice Hockey Federation, Ontario Hockey League and the NCAA all have implemented mandatory penalties for checks that target the head.

"Some of the best hockey I've ever seen happens during the Olympics, and during that two weeks of play, if you make contact with a guy's head, you're gone for the game," Lovejoy said.

Well, most of the time, anyway, although the IIHF rule includes a provision under which players can be assessed only a minor penalty and 10-minute misconduct.

Whether, and how severely, to punish players who hit opponents in the head is open to debate. What is not is the devastating effects such blows can have on players after they retire.

"The biggest thing is when you talk to, or read about, guys who are done playing the game, who are having issues when they're 40 or 50," Rupp said.

"The game has evolved into a faster game, with bigger and stronger players.

"Those guys are starting to be 45 now, and we're starting to see the results of that kind of play."

Dave Molinari: . First Published March 10, 2011 5:00 AM


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