The first day of the annual general managers meetings was largely dominated by concussion and headshot talk. And while there are many that blame the league for the perception that concussions have been rapidly increasing over the past couple of years, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is one who thinks the NHL is on the right track when it comes to dealing with head injuries.
"The biggest single development for me in terms of concussions is that we are diagnosing them properly now and treating them properly now. I don't think we have an alarming increase in the number of concussions, but they used to go unreported," Burke told TSN's Michael Landsberg on Off The Record.
"You used to go back to the bench; you'd throw up, and then wait until the cobwebs cleared. The trainer would waive the ammonia under your nose and you'd go back out. I've done that. What we are doing now is far more intelligent, but it is also producing statistics, due to the under-reporting that happened in the past. Now you are saying 'there are all these concussions.' I just think that we are getting it right now."
That being said, the league continues its due diligence working at lowering the number of head injuries in the game. Commissioner Gary Bettman revealed a five-point concussion-prevention plan at the GM meetings in Florida on Monday, and one step expands on Burke's point regarding proper diagnosis of concussions. Under the league's new plan, which will be implemented in the coming days, a player suspected of having a concussion must be removed from the bench for assessment in a quiet area, not by the team's trainer, but by a neutral doctor.
Over the course of the three days of meetings in Florida, several other suggestions to make the game safer and help eliminate headshots are expected to be tabled and considered.
"The one that we feel strongly about is non-discretionary, fixed penalties [for head-shots], said Calgary Flames President and CEO Ken King talking to TSN's Gino Reda on That's Hockey. "If you get a head-shot - it's unfortunate whether you intended to do it or not - you do the crime, you do the time. It's automatic and the key thing is non-discretionary. I think it would solve a lot of challenges."
King, who is also the Alternate Governor of the NHL, also told That's Hockey that he wanted to see what the league would do concerning the safety of both player equipment and the playing environment itself. Both issues were addressed in Bettman's five-point plan, with NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan to work with the NHLPA on equipment safety, and safety engineers to makes sure all arenas conform to safety standards as well as suggest ideas to soften the playing environment.
Safety of the playing environment came into the public spotlight recently when Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty suffered a concussion and fractured vertebra after being ridden into the partition separating the glass between the players' benches by Boston Bruins defencemen Zdeno Chara.
NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr issued the following statement regarding the league's new concussion-prevention plan:
We are also pleased that the NHL has agreed to replace the seamless tempered glass with plexiglass systems. During discussions with the NHL last year, the NHLPA agreed to approve new soft cap shoulder pads beginning with the 2010-11 season, provided that the NHL agreed to review boards and glass in each of the 30 NHL rinks, in particular, those rinks where seamless glass is currently in place, an area of NHLPA membership concern. Following the boards and glass review, the NHL agreed that the six NHL arenas that have seamless tempered glass would be required to be replaced with a safer plexiglass system by the start of the 2011-12 season. This is a positive development, and the league and the NHLPA will continue to monitor all boards and glass to determine if further changes are required.
Another hot button topic being discussed is Rule 48, which was implemented at last year's GM meetings, and whether it does enough to deter headshots.
"Tough one," said King on That's Hockey. "We're not advocates of slowing the game down or reintroducing the old clutch and grab."
"I think the rule is okay, maybe some tweaks, but do not go back to the old style."
King also said he believes the league should wait to see the extent of injuries before dolling out suspensions to the offending players.
I think it's reasonable [to wait for victim impact reports]. I think it adds a layer that's going to be difficult but you hear a lot of guys after the fact say 'I know he didn't mean to do that' or 'I did think he meant to do that', and I think it would be worthwhile hearing that up front."
Another debate concerning suspensions for headshots, also addressed in the league's five-point plan, was the possibility of sanctioning penalties against teams and coaches in the case of repeat offenders.
In an open letter to the league, former superstar and current co-owner of the Pittsburg Penguins Mario Lemieux stated that his organization was in favour of supplemental discipline for the teams of repeat offenders, but King said he wasn't sure.
"I think it will have an effect, I don't know that it will have the desired effect, so I guess I'm probably neutral on that. If I thought it would do any good I would support it, but I'm not sure."
And while decreasing the amount of illegal hits is certainly a priority for the league, recent numbers suggest headshots aren't even the most common reason for head injuries.
A recent study found that 44 percent of concussions are from legal hits, 26 percent from accidental collisions, 17 percent from illegal hits, and eight percent from fights. Five percent of concussions were undetermined.
"This notion that the players have no respect for each other and they're going around and hitting each other in the head on a regular basis - and that's what's causing all the concussions - just isn't accurate," Bettman said Monday at the GM meetings.
Even superstar Sidney Crosby, who has been out with a concussion since January 5, acknowledged the head-injury problem isn't as cut and dry as simply targeting and barring head-shots.
"Banning them would be the easiest and the safest route but at the same time there are times when there is going to be accidental contact, and how do you deal with that? That's something that they have to work out."
The Penguins centre and leading points scorer skated for the first time since being injured over two months ago on Monday, but said that he still has "no idea" how much longer he'll be out.
It may have taken a superstar to get injured, but it's certain from the early tone at the GM meetings that even if the numbers are increasing simply because concussions are now being properly diagnosed and reported as Burke suggests, the safety of players will continue to be the focus moving forward.
"It's an issue that needs to be looked at," Burke reiterated. "It's not a safe workplace and it never has been. It's a full contact sport and there is no out of bounds. That being said, we have to look at ways to make the game as safe as we can without altering the fabric of our game."