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Head injury plan good, lots of it not new

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By Stu Hackel

The NHL GM's are meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, this week discussing, among other things, hits to the head. They are expected to have some recommendations on Tuesday and will likely speak about their session publicly as they did yesterday. Shortly after Penguins General Manager Ray Shero went on the NHL Network early Monday afternoon (video above) to discuss that morning's session, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman followed him on the air (video) and outlined his five-point program to address the season-long rise in head injuries. NHL.com says Bettman presented these points to the GM's at the start of the meeting.

This plan has the appearance of a rapid response to recent events, events which we discussed in an earlier post Monday, but as Bettman himself said, some of these steps have been in the works for a while.

The five areas of action outlined by Bettman are:

-- Former NHLer Brendan Shanahan, now a league vice president, has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the NHL Players' Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.

This is a good proposal, but nothing really new. Rather it's been an ongoing effort. Shanahan has been involved in this issue for some time and the league has been looking at reducing the hardness of shoulder and elbow pads for a few years. Just this season it instituted a new regulation that mandates extra soft padding on shoulders (video). Perhaps given the rise in concussions in part caused by what are currently legal hits, the new regulation has not been judged as sufficient and more needs to be done.

-- Mandatory removal from play if a player shows any signs of listlessness.

TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted (here and here) that this means the league will implement a revised concussion protocol. If a player is suspected to have suffered a concussion, he must be removed from the bench and undergo an examination in a quiet area. The assessment must be done by a medical doctor, not the team's therapist, using standardized SCAT testing.

This, too, is a good proposal, but it has also been in the works. As we mentioned nearly a month ago, TSN's Darren Dreger and McKenzie broke the news on Feb. 16 that that this new protocol was in development. It means a player who is staggered the way Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski was twice by Zdeno Chara on Feb. 15 and exhibits the type of behavior that Grabovski did...

...will have to leave the bench and go to the dressing room to be evaluated before being allowed to return to play. Grabovski received a short assessment on the bench by the Leafs' trainer, which is the current NHL procedure.

-- The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of repeat offenders with regard to Supplementary Discipline.

This seems to be one new and interesting development, but it's not Mr. Bettman's. It's the idea of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who criticized the NHL for it's leniency in not taking more forceful action in the aftermath of the Pens-Islanders brawl in early February and sent a letter to Bettman outlining his proposal a week ago (and under his proposals, his own team would have been fined $600,000 this season because of suspensions to Eric Godard and Matt Cooke).

As former Flames GM Craig Button pointed out on the NHL Network, it takes some of the onus off the players for shouldering all the burden of punishment and holds the coach and team responsible as well for repeat offenders. The NHL's Hockey Operations Department has long maintained that a handful of players seem to repeatedly commit suspendable offenses.

Of course, this step only works if players are actually suspended in the first place and are not treated leniently as many people have charged in recent years. If the standards of supplemental discipline remain lax, this will be an empty gesture.

-- In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.

Other than the new step of employing the firm to examine the rinks, the issue of dangers posed by seamless glass has been a problem for a long, long time -- 15 years, in fact, when the glass was installed in such places as Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. This glass was the subject of protests by players at the 1997 All-Star Game when Shanahan, at the time a Red Wing, said ''It is very dangerous. 'It's like running into a brick wall.'' Others agreed with him, but the NHL was very slow to act.

Shanahan repeated his objection during a Sports Illustrated roundtable prior to the 2000-01 season. Eventually responding to these concerns, the league targeted Dec. 31, 2002 as the date for teams to not remove the seamless glass but make the system more flexible. Then it extended the deadline until the start of the 2003-04 campaign. Part of the problem was the changeover fee, which reportedly ran as high as $200,000.

In 2002, the Stars Mike Modano suffered one of his many concussions when the Flyers Jeremy Roenick hit him from behind into seamless glass, causing this angry reaction: "The glass is a real issue. What's the cost? It shows you how important the players are. It's just a meat market. Move them in and move them out. Get some younger guys whose brains aren't scrambled yet."

Pierre McGuire has been saying in recent days that an earlier directive to rid the NHL of seamless glass had been issued prior to this season, but it was not universally followed. Bettman's directive today was something that had already been under way: Dreger reported 11 days ago that the changeover for teams that still have seamless glass on their endboards -- Calgary, Montreal, Minnesota, Nashville, Colorado and Phoenix -- had already been scheduled to take place during the offseason. Bettman said later when he addressed the media (video) the league will continue to look at whether the seamless glass along the side boards needs to be replaced in the arenas that currently have it.

In all, this is good move, only 15 years in the making.

-- A 'blue-ribbon' committee of Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk -- all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 -- to examine topics relevant to the issue.

Just how this committee will function is unknown, as is what else might be involved other than collecting information and impressions. There are those who believe in general that the formation of blue ribbon committees often conceals executive indecisiveness, but this one, with these individuals, can only provide a good knowledge base, especially considering the respect the four Hall of Fame-caliber players command and their place in the game as league officials and general managers.

Their task seems broad and one assumes that it will be more sharply defined in the future. But it's unlikely that there are four guys better qualified to study how players behave in the context of the current set of rules and how the game has changed to get where it is now when head injures have mounted and player safety is an increasing concern. Still, Bettman could broaden this group to include coaches, GMs and scouts to add their perspectives. Those types of hockey people can provide an even broader knowledge base to any commission.

The general managers will conclude their discussions of the issues on Tuesday and may have additional proposals at that time more directed at the rules. The general feeling from those GM's who spoke to the media after the morning session (Montreal's Pierre Gauthier, Carolina's Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Toronto's Brian Burke) was that they are looking to see how the rules can be adjusted to further protect players on hits to the head without compromising the game's speed or physical character.

As many involved with hockey have stated, this is a dangerous game and the danger is part of its appeal. But this sport balances danger with grace, and the grace should not be overwhelmed by the danger.

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