Improved safety on top of GMs' list
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BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Even with a concussion that has kept him out of NHL games for more than two months, Penguins All-Star center Sidney Crosby proved he hasn't lost his superb timing.
On the day Crosby returned to the ice for a short solo workout, the league's general managers spent several hours poring over a presentation and videos of hits that produced concussions -- including Crosby's -- and breaking into discussion groups as they strive to find ways to improve player safety.
"We want to see how we can make it better. Maybe that's redefining some rules on what's a legal hit and what's not a legal hit," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Monday after the first of three days of meetings at the posh Boca Beach Club.
"Everybody's trying to do what's best for the league and the safety of the players."
The NHL already has taken some action. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the protocol for detecting concussions "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."
Bettman said the strengthened protocol will be implemented within days and will be strictly enforced.
NHL executive and former player Brendan Shanahan, in conjunction with the NHL Players Association, is looking at possible equipment changes, such as smaller padding, to reduce injuries in collisions.
The league also will hire a safety engineer and is asking its teams to evaluate their arenas for ways to make rinks safer. That is in response to a controversial hit last week in which Boston's Zdeno Chara put Montreal's Max Pacioretty into the stanchion at end of the Bruins bench. Pacioretty was taken off on a stretcher and has a concussion and a cracked vertebra.
The primary area of player safety central to these GM meetings is concussions. That could lead to scrutiny of penalties such as charging and boarding, but it certainly means an intense look at hits to the head.
Crosby said after his skate in Pittsburgh that he would like to see "clarity" in the rules.
"Banning [all hits to the head] would be the easiest, I guess, and the safest route," he said. "But at the same time, there are times when there is going to be accidental contact, and how do you deal with that? That's something that they have to work out."
Crosby -- one of four Penguins out because of concussions, along with Arron Asham, Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson -- cut to the heart of the discussion.
Shero reiterated a stance that Penguins CEO David Morehouse took after a board of governors meeting in January. They would like to see all hits to the head outlawed in the NHL, as in the NCAA, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the junior Ontario Hockey League.
There could be some resistance.
Some GMs believe Rule 48, which calls for penalizing blind-side and lateral hits to the head, suffices. That rule was drawn up at the GM meetings a year ago.
"I think Rule 48 is working the way we hoped it would," said Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher, formerly Shero's assistant.
"I think people would be surprised how many concussions are inadvertent, from inadvertent contact," added Toronto GM Brian Burke. "The head shot rule we put in is working, in my opinion, in terms of the situations where a player takes a head shot from the blind side. I think that was a good rule change.
"Now we have to see if there are other things we have to change on the ice surface that will make it safer -- without changing the fabric of our game."
Shero doesn't buy the idea that cracking down on head contact will dilute the nature of the hard-checking game.
"There's over 50,000 hits in a year, so if there's 10 or 20 questionable ones, is that going to take the fabric of our game away?" Shero said. "We're still going to have 49,892 hits in our game. It's not going to change that much, I don't think."
During the All-Star weekend in January, Bettman first alluded to findings that many concussions are happening on plays other than hits to the head, legal or otherwise. The league's internal study of concussions this season shows that:
• 26 percent of concussions are caused accidentally, including collisions, players tripping and players hit in the head by pucks, and that is double the amount from a season ago;
• 44 percent are from legal hits, mostly body hits, that send a player into the boards, cause a whiplash effect, etc.;
• 17 percent are from illegal hits, 14 percent specifically from illegal hits to the head, with the 17 percent figure down from 26 percent last season;
• 8 percent are from fighting;
• 17 percent of man-games lost from concussions are from illegal hits, down from 41 percent a year ago.
A league spokesman couldn't account for the fact that the percents don't add up to 100.
"There's no one silver bullet as to what's causing concussions," Bettman said. "This notion that the players have no respect for each other and they're going around hitting each other in the head on a regular basis, and that's what's causing all the concussions, just isn't accurate."
The GMs saw video of the hits that resulted in all but four concussions this season.
Included was the bruising, twisting hit that David Steckel, then with Washington, had against Crosby in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic. The league and Penguins seem to finally be acknowledging that Crosby first got his concussion then, and it was exacerbated when he got hit from behind into the boards by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman four nights later.
Crosby hasn't played since. The revised protocol about to go into effect might have caught his concussion before he played again and absorbed another hit.
"He was cleared to play. He got back in," Shero said. "I saw Sid the day of the Tampa game at 4:30. Talked to him about 10 minutes. Never occurred to me there was anything wrong with him."
Shero grew somewhat passionate as he pointed out that his teenage son, Chris, got a concussion earlier this hockey season, and it went undiagnosed for some time.
"I'm a super parent, I guess, because my son had a concussion playing hockey a month ago, and I let him play seven more games and practice five more times," Shero said. "We didn't know. As a parent, that's frustrating. All these guys have parents. You're dealing with their lives and their careers, and in my case, my kid's schooling.
"I have my son -- who is my son; I live with him -- and never noticed anything with my son. These are delicate injuries. "
First Published March 15, 2011 12:00 am