NHL still paralyzed by the head shots issue, plus more notes

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Commissioner Gary Bettman made some media rounds in Toronto during Hall of Fame weekend and had interesting things to say. Appearing on a TV show called Off the Record on the TSN network, the commissioner was very much on the record when he once again tried to defuse the never-ending debate regarding what appears to be a growing number of intentional hits to the head.

"It's not a simple question," Bettman replied when asked if he would like to see all hits to the head ruled illegal.

Note to non-regular followers of the NHL: virtually every somewhat difficult question posed to the commissioner is answered with that perfunctory lead-in, a circumstance that puts getting a straight answer from him on a par with understanding an edict from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

The above aside helps explain Bettman's answer: "If I take my elbow and I knock it into your head, with the intent of injuring you, that's a far different act than eliminating what would otherwise be a clean body check. When you say 'Should it be a penalty?' the fact is: what if at the last second you turn your back on me and I'm going to check you? What if at the last second you bend over and what wouldn't have been a hit to the head turns out to be a hit to the head?"

The situation Bettman described sometimes happens. It's often regarded as just one of those hockey moments where, because of the speed of the game, something happens that isn't intentional. Many of us who live in a world that is a tad more inclusive of reality than pro sports would argue that it should be regarded as an accident. It's also fair to say that Bettman's Director of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, often deals with those "accidents" by assessing supplementary discipline in the form of suspensions.

But the reality in the game today is that though "accidents" happen, there are numerous times when a player does deliver a blow to the head that is intentional and designed to injure. Under the rules, those are often regarded as clean hits. Many of them have targeted a player's head with enough force to deliver a serious head injury.

One could also argue that there have been countless "dirty hits" delivered with the same intent and the league has done little or -- as is often the case with Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger -- nothing to dissuade them.

A montage of perfectly-placed shoulders delivered by former New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens to the heads of unsuspecting opponents like Eric Lindros, Ron Francis and Paul Kariya would be considered Exhibit A regarding clean hits that have had devastating effects. Pronger's flying elbows, the most recent of which was an un-penalized shot that felled Detroit scoring star Pavel Datsyuk, would be Exhibit A regarding dirty hits, though in fairness to Pronger, there are literally thousands of examples from hundreds of his professional mates.

This is a favored tactic of the commissioner: draw a questioning eye to something unrelated to the facts at hand -- and the facts are that the NHL has a serious problem with head-hunting and is at a loss as to how to correct it. We understand that accidents happen, but we also are certain to the level of a CT Scan that there are intentional hits to the head and the commissioner isn't overly enthusiastic about finding ways to deal with either of them.

Which brings us back to the observation made by Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford who said in regard to the league's current policy: "I realize there are only two ways you can go on this . Either you have a penalty for head-checking, like they do in the Ontario Hockey League, or you don't, and we don't in the NHL. I understand that and that's fine, I guess, but don't tell anyone you care about protecting the players' heads, because it's not happening."

Bettman also said during his interview that a third of concussions in the league are the result of fights and asked: "So now do people want to eliminate fighting from the game as well because that might result in concussions?"

Well, that might not play in Canada where fans have long been in favor of a "good scrap, eh" but in other cities in the league, and even among pockets of forward-thinking fans in Canada, it remains a legitimate question.

And Bettman's last remark proves it: "We don't like concussions. We don't like any hits to the head, but before we run down this road, think about what the consequences to the game are going to be."

We do think about the consequences, Mr. Commissioner. In fact, we often think of the blow from Todd Bertuzzi that left Steve Moore with a broken neck. We think of the early retirements of players like Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, Geoff Courtnall and others. We think of the 760 man games lost due to concussions just last season. We look to answers from the Injury Analysis Panel that was formed in 2000 but quietly disbanded after the lockout. We wonder why nothing happens even after 15 players were concussed last February, the shortest month in the season.

We wonder why there's constant talk and a committee to deal with oversized goaltender pads, but nothing happening regarding the hard-shell pads that appear to have significantly increased the force of elbow and shoulder hits to the head. We wonder why the NHL doesn't trumpet the fact that OHL officials have stated that they've seen a legitimate reduction in the number of concussions since instituting a ban on blows to the head.

We wonder how many "upper body injuries" are actually concussions that aren't reported. We wonder why accidental hits from behind, a part of the game, are subject to suspension while clean hits to the head, clearly designed to injure, are not.

We think about that a lot.

The commissioner also threw another bucket of icy cold water on the idea that a second team is coming to the Southern Ontario marketplace: "It hasn't been studied because there is no reason to study it." Bettman has a legitimate point there and was reacting to yet another speculative story in the Toronto Globe and Mail regarding the cost for a second team setting up shop there. Clearly someone, perhaps even someone who has a major stake and/or voice with the paper, has an agenda for a second team within the paper's circulation area . . .

GM Brian Burke coming free of the Anaheim Ducks would seem to indicate there is a possible Toronto job in his future and colleague Michael Farberspells out why elsewhere on this site, but is it to far a stretch to think that other teams might move to outflank the Maple Leafs? There are rumors that the powers that be in Chicago would make a move on Dale Tallon, a GM they did not hire, should a perceived upgrade become available. That same rumor holds true regarding a president's position in Boston (Burke's native stomping grounds) or with the New York Rangers, a team that could conceivably offer him the role or kick GM Glen Sather upstairs and give Burke his job. There are other teams who would also look to upgrade, but Burke has made it clear that he's interested in a market where he could be close to his children from a previous marriage (they still live in the Boston area) and in a market where his wife, who has had a career in broadcasting, could find a high-level media job. Toronto might be a front runner, but this could get very interesting ...

Curious as to why Denis Savard, fired just four games into the season, went out without a word of protest as to the unfairness of it all? Well, we were, too. But that seems to have been answered this week when the Hawks named Savard a "team ambassador" who will represent the organization at events in the United Center and throughout the market area. We're not saying the franchise bought his silence, but if a fired employee wants to find work again in the NHL, it's often a good thing to grin and bear the injustices of a dismissal ...

The old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium will never be confused with any of the legendary buildings from the NHL's Original Six teams, but after being mothballed for over a decade, the depression-era structure (that's the 1930s depression, not the current economic disaster) is being prepped for the wrecking ball. To that end, the city has commissioned a "Farewell Old Friend" party this coming weekend in the nearby convention center. Former Sabres greats like Gil Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert are scheduled to appear as are stars from the city's old NBA presence -- the Buffalo Braves -- and other teams. A group called ShowcaseSports Marketing will be selling building memorabilia, including portions of the hockey boards and the famed blue-section seats. The link is at www.audfarewell.com.