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Injury secrecy policy hurts hockey

NHL general managers met in Chicago a few weeks back to kick around some rules. They had an idea to change the delayed penalty so that when one is called against a team in its defensive zone, that team will have to fully clear the puck to get a play stoppage. As it stands now, the penalized team only needs to gain possession.

They also talked about returning the hand-pass rule to where it will be whistled anywhere on the ice, including the defensive zone. They received, and apparently placed in the round file, a proposal from Montreal's Bob Gainey that they at least consider not allowing a player to leave his feet to block a shot in the defensive zone. I happen to think that one has merit, but we'll leave it to another column.

What wasn't discussed, and what should be appalling to fans, is that the GMs didn't repeal the quietly-instituted new rules regarding the disclosure of injuries. Those "new rules" were put in at the previous meeting in June, and pull back previous edicts to a point where teams really don't have to say anything to anyone. That's a hindrance to media trying to do the job of accurately reporting on the day-to-day happenings, but more importantly, it's a disservice to fans and -- whether they realize it or not -- the players.

The shame is that this issue had been discussed and pretty much resolved years ago when former Commissioner John Ziegler -- no fan of the media, I might add -- understood that paying customers had at least a reasonable right to know. True, teams hid injuries back then, too, and while they didn't necessarily have to disclose the severity, they had to make a truthful report regarding the general location (more often than not it was totally obvious to anyone who watched the game) and provide a reasonable expectation of when a player would return to the lineup. League members were even under obligation to quickly acknowledge injuries to players who had left the ice and provide an opinion as to whether they would return later in the game.

Fans liked that. Although it was hard to transmit that information to in-house crowds, fans watching on TV or listening on radio were at least aware as to why a certain player was missing and what the coach was doing to compensate for his extended absence. GM's have chipped away at the level of disclosure in recent years, first going to an "upper - lower body" report with no clear definition of where an injury is (as well as an opportunity to say upper when it's really lower) and how long a player might be out. Teams did try to occasionally address long-term hurts, but even that eventually slipped away as they opted for a "no-sense-speculating" approach that later -- under the guise of "privacy for the player" -- morphed into a "none of your business" edict.

Now, in a little-noticed, unannounced change, GMs have voted unanimously to no longer require disclosure of the specific nature of injuries. Clubs can not falsify or misrepresent a player's condition, but, in essence, the way is clear to say nothing or next to it. GMs claim the changes are designed to protect players from what they argue has long been a problem: the targeting of injuries by opponents after players return to the ice. Targeting can be an issue, but it's hard to imagine in age of video scouting that opposing coaches and players aren't already aware of those injuries, announced or not. What's really happening is that GMs have built themselves a tool by which they can completely black out injury information, and they've welcomed the opportunity.

We saw this most recently in the way the New Jersey Devils took days to reveal the extent of goalie Martin Brodeur's "bruised elbow" that now requires surgery and a three-to-four month recovery period. Giving the Devils the benefit of the doubt that they needed so much time to discover the extent of the injury, their actions pale in comparison to the recent injury suffered by New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro.

DiPietro, who was signed to essentially a lifetime contract (15 seasons), has had chronic knee and hip problems in recent seasons that caused him to miss games and affected the team's ability to remain in contention for a playoff spot. On most every occasion, the Isles provided only vague explanations and time frames like "day-to-day." DiPietro's latest was said to be "lower body" and not related to previous injuries, but this week the team confirmed that he had arthroscopic surgery on a torn meniscus and would be out 4-6 weeks. That's of concern to Islander fans who still don't know if the meniscus is in the same surgically-repaired knee that caused DiPietro to miss the first four games of the season.

Whenever there is a lack of accurate information, speculation tends to fill the void. When that happens, it's easy for fans and media to assume the worst -- he's brittle, a slow healer, a malingerer, he won't play unless he's always 100 percent -- as opposed to knowing that he simply can't perform until his injury is fully healed.

There have been times in my career when I've seen a player fall out of favor with a team and suddenly there's a whisper campaign about his willingness to "suck it up" or "play through pain." Players have even been asked to possibly jeopardize their long-term health by returning to action too soon, particularly when head injuries are involved -- one of the most notable incidents in that regard being the dispute between Eric Lindros and GM Bobby Clarke of the Flyers during the 1999-2000 season. It's all patently unfair and one could argue that it might even be illegal in today's litigious world, but it happens, especially when there's a playoff berth, millions of dollars and even a championship at stake.

A clear disclosure policy, one that gives a reasonable description and time frame for return would help lessen that pressure and speculation. If the time frame is extended, announce the extension. Either way, both player and club are protected and the fan can make an informed decision regarding his future expenditures.

And with regard to "targeting", players play with pain all the time and, being competitive, will try to take advantage of an opponent's weakness. That doesn't make it right, but I tend to look at the NFL's approach. In Super Bowl XXVIII, the entire world knew Dallas running back Emmitt Smith had a bad shoulder. Everyone knew because they saw him get hurt and it was on the league's mandated injury report. The Cowboys and Smith knew he would be targeted, but they also knew he could play and he did. The Cowboys won. So did the New York Giants last February, with receiver Plaxico Burress's swollen left knee and season-long sprained right ankle a matter of public knowledge. Burress caught the winning touchdown pass. So much for that old "we're trying to win the Stanley Cup here" argument.

It goes against the history of hockey, but full disclosure protects the player, the club, the fans and the game itself.

The newest injury policy does not.

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