Concussion discussions were front and center during the NHL's All-Star weekend. The league's Board of Governors met at a local hotel on Saturday afternoon before Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the assembled media.
Halfway through a season in which the NHL adopted Rule 48 -- the edict that punishes "lateral or blind-side hit where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact" -- concussions have actually increased. Sidney Crosby, the league's premier player, is recovering from a knock on the noggin instead of showing off his skills here. He's not the only player who has been so thwacked during the past year. Last March, Boston's Marc Savard missed extended time after suffering a blow to the head by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. That hit was a catalyst for the discussions among general managers that led to Rule 48. Savard is out again because of concussion issues.
Though he declined to offer specific numbers because the league is still compiling and categorizing them, Bettman noted that while concussions on the whole are up, those caused by blindside hits are down, as are ones caused by legal hits to the head. However, concussions caused by fights and accidental contact, such as collisions with teammates, or impact with the boards and ice are up considerably.
The so-called accidental hits, Bettman noted, have caused a three-fold increase in the loss of manpower games. That raises the fundamental conflict the league faces between the need for safety and the game's fast and often violent nature that appeals to many fans.
"The ideal number of concussions would be zero," Bettman said. "We want to get as close to that as we can without changing the fundamental nature of the game."
The increases in certain instances of concussion, Bettman added, "Could be caused by a full moon, could be the speed of the game. As for fighting concussions, they could be mismatches." He insisted, though, that, "Rule 48 appears to be working."
Still, there is a debate among the teams as to how far the league should go in the cause of reducing headshots. "It's at the point where we have to ask if we're doing all we can to look out for the safety of our players," said Bruins President Cam Neely, who added that he couldn't see an imminent adaptation of a rule that bans all headshots, but recent events and numbers, "have sobered us."
While acknowledging the injury to Crosby and the impact his loss has upon the game, many governors also opposed any changes that toughened penalties on headshots beyond Rule 48.
"Rule 48 was an important change to eliminate the blindside," says Toronto GM Brian Burke, who cautioned that further crackdowns would negatively affect the speed of the game. "Some leagues that have a rule that imposes penalties for any hits to the head. I think it has reduced hitting in those leagues and I'm not in favor of anything like that."
Sure, the NHL can try to legislate respect for the head, but in essence, there is only so much that it can do to eliminate a problem that is simply a consequence of its game's very progress.
On the subjects of individual franchises and issues that ranged from sales to lawsuits to relocation, Bettman added the following:
• Bettman said he welcomed Donald Fehr's appointment to the NHL Players' Association, but there is no rush to reach a new CBA because the existing one will hold through next season -- longer than the contracts in place for the other major sports. "Collective bargaining is a year and a half away," he said. "Three other sports go first."
While the league hasn't decided if it will repeat the All-Star draft format that debuted Friday, it seems to have met with favorable responses from anyone who wasn't named Phil Kessel. "I like the format," said Nick Lidstrom, one of the game's two captains. "It's something different, something new. I like the fact that we're not afraid to try something to advance the game. If the response is good, why not keep it for next year?"
Brian Burke said he favored bringing back the draft format for next year's game in Ottawa, but with one adjustment. Call it the Kessel Rule. "I would put the names of the last five guys in a hat so the last guy doesn't have to just sit there," Burke said.
Lidstrom knows he may to adapt his standard defenseman's role for what will likely be an offensive slugfest on Sunday: "I'd like to say defense wins games," he said, "but I'm not sure that's really the case at this game. I don't think anyone really thinks about it."
That probably suits fellow defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta's converted forward who sometimes abandons defensive protocols. "Well, I'm such a stay-at-home defenseman, I'm not sure how I'll handle it," he joked. "Such a strict positional guy, you know. I'll have to see if the other guys can bring me out of my shell and take a few chances out there."
That leaves the goaltenders with more modest goals than usual. "The save percentages in this game are about one billion something," says Montreal's Carey Price. "If I can just give up one less than the next guy, I can go back home and face my teammates again."