By Stu Hackel
The most interesting things during All-Star Weekend were likely not the draft, the SuperSkills competition, the game, or even the tailgating outside the RBC Center. They came from Saturday's Board of Governors meeting and Gary Bettman's press conference during which the subjects of concussions and franchise news took prominence.
The Sabres will be sold (official announcement on Thursday), the Coyotes' situation remains uncertain, the Thrashers' owners love lawsuits, and the Blues' refinancing is proceeding. Much of that stuff occurs out of the public eye. Concussions, though, often take place in full public view and Bettman had some uncomfortable news on that front: Despite the passage of Rule 48, which bans a limited variety of checks to the head of unsuspecting players, the preliminary data shows that concussions have increased this season.
Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News quoted Bruins president Cam Neely as saying, "There's a great deal of concern. It's important for the league to do what they can and GMs to get the right rules in place to reduce concussions. Unfortunately, it's a physical sport, a contact sport and there's no out of bounds. You can't control all of them, but you can try your best to control most of them."
Bettman said concussions caused by the lateral and blindside hits covered under Rule 48 are down, and Canucks GM Mike Gillis told reporters about videos seen by the Governors that show Rule 48 is having the desired effect. A play in question involved the Flyers' Mike Richards and the Canucks' Henrik Sedin. "Henrik was coming across (the middle), had lost the puck a little bit," Gillis explained. "And rather than hitting him in a vulnerable position, Richards approached him much more cautiously and went for the puck. He tried to interrupt him that way. So there is some evidence of players beginning to react in respect to each other."
If that's really the trend on hits covered by Rule 48, that's good, but when the GMs first discussed banning blindside and lateral hits it was pointed out that such checks may only happen a handful of times each season. And Bettman added, "We have seen a decrease in concussions caused by hits involving the head that are deemed legal in our game."
So what contributed to the overall uptick? "We've seen players suffer concussions this season when they've stumbled into the boards or other players without any contact at all," Bettman explained, also citing instances of players being struck in the head by pucks, colliding with teammates, and hit legally but their heads struck the ice, boards or glass. So-called "accidental or inadvertent contact" has accounted for the biggest increase in man games lost this season.
So is the overall rise "simply bad luck," as Ira Podell wrote for Associated Press?
As we've pointed out, the NHL recognized the concussion problem long ago and deserves a good deal of credit for trying to understand the complexities of the issue. But it is not always as quick to respond, to go from understanding to action, as it likes to claim. Despite the league's research, the collective sentiment among GMs for years was that something like Rule 48 wasn't necessary and would threaten the game's physicality. (Now that a rule has been enacted, the game isn't any less physical.) The NHL can pat itself on the back all it wants, but it was a hard road to get to Rule 48.
One of the main obstructionists was Toronto GM Brian Burke, who is always heavily quoted on the headshots issue. He eventually championed Rule 48, but reading his statements after Saturday's board meeting made one wonder how open-minded or flexible he'll be at the next meeting in March if the subject turns to strengthening the rule. "The concussion thing is the topic du jour," Burke said, seemingly trying to minimize the problem. "It'll be shoulders next year if there's a rash of shoulder injuries. Frankly, I think the biggest reason we're focused on concussions is because of Sidney. If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys all be around with cameras asking about concussions? I don't think so."
Well, shoulder injuries heal. Brain injuries do not, or at least not as easily, and the consequences are far more devastating. That's something all pro sports have to grapple with regardless of how proactive they've been in the past. SI.com's Sarah Kwak asked a number of players for their views on hits to the head, and most endorsed the league's current stance on Rule 48, but also expressed concern that rules may have to be strengthened and players will need to be more involved in making the game safer.
In defending the NHL, Bettman ran through his litany of steps it had taken, beginning in 1997, to address the concussion issue, and the list is relatively impressive compared to other sports. "We were the first sport to mandate neuropsychological baseline testing," he said. "We have also mandated changes to the rules. We have mandated changes to equipment. We have mandated changes to the playing environment. All designed to increase player safety."
It's one thing to mandate changes, but it's obviously another to always enforce them. The unforgiving seamless glass that was supposed to be removed from all NHL buildings is still in a handful of arenas. The shoulder pads that are thrust into puck carriers are still broader and harder than necessary. It may be accidental and inadvertent for a concussion to result from the type of hit that most recently injured Marc Savard...
.... but if the glass in Colorado had been replaced, he might not have been as badly hurt.
And do the changes that Bettman spoke of go far enough? Does David Steckel, whose collision with Crosby probably triggered the Penguin captain's concussion, wear the soft shoulder pads that Pierre McGuire was holding in this NBC segment or the broader, harder ones held by Mike Milbury?
One questioner asked Bettman if the governors were interested in expanding restrictions on checks to the head. He replied that the GMs will have an in-depth discussion before the owners do, but added that if concussions from both legal and blindside hits are indeed decreasing, then a stronger rule against them may not make sense. It's a nice argument, but it evades the point. If the NHL recognizes that the physical nature of the game is such that accidental hits, incidental hits, and even hits that don't target the head can cause concussions through, for example, whiplash as what happened last season to Jonathan Toews when Willie Mitchell caught him...
...it certainly behooves the NHL to recognize that all direct hits that contact or target the head -- especially with hard shoulder pads as the weapon of choice -- whether blindside or not, present a major threat to the puck carrier and should be examined far more closely.
Here are a couple from last season...
...and while they certainly are crowd-pleasing -- especially because visiting players are the victims -- they could have been executed without contact with the head and been potentially less dangerous while still thrilling the spectators.
"The one thing that I have said all along is when we put new rules in the league, the players are so good they adjust to it," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. "If you look at the blindside hits now, the fact is there is still some, but there's not nearly as many as there were before and as time goes on there will be less."
There's no question that hockey is a physical game and there will always be the danger of concussions from collisions between speeding bodies in an enclosed area. Physical play is one of the game's essential characteristics, but that doesn't mean that all types of physical play have to be accepted.