By Stu Hackel
An alarming spike in concussions earlier this season caused some NHL general managers to propose rolling back rule changes and possibly returning the game to the somnolent Dead Puck Era, but as of mid-Tuesday afternoon there seemed to be little coming out of their Boca Raton Florida meetings that indicates they favor stiffer penalties or longer suspensions for players who willfully target an opponent's head.
That's not to say that the 30 men who run the hockey departments for their respective clubs are not concerned about player safety. On Tuesday, they proposed the league adopt the hybred icing rule for next season, specifically designed for the few times a year when an icing play results in a bad collision occurs on a race for the puck.
Nor does it mean they are not concerned about the concussion problem -- they are. On Monday, the GMs were shown video of every concussion this season and they heard from the NHL's Kris King that the number is roughly the same as it was last season after a big leap from 2009-10 to 2010-11.
In King's view, "The fact that it stabilized after a huge increase from two years ago is a positive, I think."
In the view of The National Post's Michael Triakos however, it's not so positive. "You have to hand it to the NHL," he writes. "Here is a league that readily admits the amount of concussions sustained so far this season is on par with last season, and yet this is somehow spun as good news. As though the status quo were something to be proud of. As though scrambled brains have become a necessary hazard of the game, like lost teeth or a cut on a chin."
If there is a movement among the GMs for a more rigid standard of penalties on hits to the head, it's a small one. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reported that Carolina's Jim Rutherford "took the relatively radical stand on Monday that all hits to the head should be, at minimum, a minor penalty."
“The same as it is for highsticking,” Rutherford explained. That would be a big change from the way the game is currently officiated.
We repeatedly hear from people in the NHL, even those GMs who have been champions of stronger rules against head contact, that it is a tough game that will never be concussion-free. Certainly there are accidental collisions and concussions that result from good hockey hits. And the GMs, among others, continually say they don't want to make certain changes because it would fundamentally alter the nature of the game. And some of that is concern is fair.
But they don't seem inclined to do the one thing that would not fundamentally change the game but still be a strong measure against concussions, and that would be to impose tougher sanctions against those who willfully target the head of an opponent. Why not take what is now a three-game suspension, like Mike Green's current ban for this hit and make it something more punitive?
Even though Green did not concuss Lightning forward Brett Connolly, and the NHL recognized this hit was bad enough to suspend the Capitals defenseman, the punishment was soft, especially because Green is a repeat offender. But harsh punishments don't happen because the notion that they would serve as a deterrent against future acts gets trumped by the desire of too many parties -- players, coaches, GMs, owners and agents -- to keep the offending players playing, or at least get them back as soon as possible.
The blame for this often falls on whoever is handing out the suspensions, but he -- and in this case, it's Brendan Shanahan -- has guidelines under which he operates. When he imposed tough bans in the preseason, he was reeled in. Subsequently, some hits that should have been suspensions were fines, and some that should have been longer (like Calgary's Rene Bourque on Washington's Nicklas Backstrom) were too lenient.
Shanahan, not without reason, can be sensitive when critics question his judgment. As Jeff Z. Klein reported on The New York Times' Slapshot blog, Shanahan gathered the media on Monday as he and King went through a number of plays on video and presented various statistics to show that players have responded to the stronger Rule 48 on head hits and Rule 41 on boarding.
“I do take sort of offense when people say players don’t respect each other,” Shanahan said. “They really do. I see the majority of players really making an effort, making a change. Obviously we know that all it takes is that one bad hit and the perception of hockey is that they’ll never change and they’re not respecting one another. We just simply don’t see that as accurate.
“I understand why it’s said, and I understand there’s a lot of work to be done and this is the beginning. We’re not at the end of this. But I do see on a nightly basis many occasions, big open-ice hits that are maybe passed up, and hits along the boards that are passed up.”
Shanahan also went on the NHL Network on Monday and reviewed some of the video for the TV audience, showing how some plays might look identical to fans at home but when broken down by his Department of Player Safety, had different elements to them that caused a different response from the league. It was an illuminating segment.
What Shanahan has done, perhaps better than any league official ever, is communicate to the players, teams, media and fans what his thinking, and the thinking of his group, is on any given topic. His ability to articulate the subtle points of his rulings has been greatly beneficial to everyone, and most crucially the players, who have changed their behavior to an extent. When Shanahan spoke to members of the media on Monday, Klein reported, he showed an incident in which "Boston's Shawn Thornton refrained from drilling Montreal's P.K. Subban into the boards from behind, instead curling around to hit him from the side."
“Any of you guys can get into Thornton’s head right now,” Shanahan said, showing a slow-motion clip of the play. “He’s at home. The crowd’s cheering. They see him coming. The whole world can hear him coming. And it’s P.K. Subban. So you know he wants to finish this check and he would love to finish it hard. Maybe a few years ago he would have finished it right in the nameplate, right in the numbers. But he actually comes in, makes a subtle step to his right and he’s still able to deliver a real good hard check, but it’s not illegal.”
That is only one of a few incidents the league can show to demonstrate how player behavior has changed. Unfortunately, Shanahan remains restricted in using the strongest tool the NHL has in changing behavior, tougher penalties and longer suspensions. Until then, something will remain wrong with the league's laudable efforts to stop concussions.