The NHL’s general managers will find themselves in the eye of the storm on Florida’s Atlantic coast this week.
With the outcry over concussions having grown to a fever pitch, the GMs will gather for their annual meetings from Monday to Wednesday under some pressure to deliver a message about the state of the game.
They’ve already spent considerable time grappling with concussions and illegal hits—developing Rule 48 outlawing blindside head hits at these meetings a year ago—and won’t necessarily conclude this session with any new measures to propose.
If anything, the divide between those involved in the sport and those on the outside will likely be highlighted during the meetings in Boca Raton, Fla.
In the wake of the devastating head and neck injury suffered by Montreal’s Max Pacioretty on Tuesday, calls for more safety in the NHL came from all corners—everyone from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to league sponsor Air Canada to Canadiens owner Geoff Molson weighed in.
However, it was much more difficult to detect a desire for change from those who have spent a lifetime in the game.
“Every time there’s an injury, we’re running around trying to address the specific injury,” Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said over the weekend. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of eliminating head shots but it doesn’t matter what the rules are—there’s still going to be these situations. I wish everybody would stop and think.
“We’re playing a contact sport, people are going to get hurt.”
One of the toughest jobs for the GMs will be defining the exact terms of the conversation.
If anything, the biggest issue to come from Zdeno Chara’s hit on Pacioretty is one of arena safety. It’s likely the Canadiens forward would have suffered no injury at all had he not smacked his head on the stanchion between players’ benches at the Bell Centre.
The NHL’s hockey operations has closely examined every play that resulted in a concussion this season and found that an alarming number have been caused by accidental or inadvertent situations—plays that are not easily legislated out of the game.
“It’s easy to say ‘the league needs to do x, y and z on concussions’ (but) it’s not that simple,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last month at the all-star game. “Changing a rule which doesn’t address what’s actually causing the concussions may not be the right thing to do, changing equipment may not necessarily be the right thing to do.
“We spend a lot of effort on this subject, we know it’s important.”
The importance of the issue was underscored with recent findings by Boston University that former enforcer Bob Probert suffered from the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Probert died of a heart attack last July at age 45.
In many ways, it’s been the year of the concussion in the NHL.
The number of players affected by the injury are up this season—Bettman refused to disclose by how much—and the victims include Sidney Crosby, the league’s most marketable player who was off to the finest start of his career when he was struck down on Jan. 5. Crosby still sits 11th overall in league scoring despite not skating at all since.
One option the GMs will discuss is potentially penalizing every hit where the principal point of contact is the head, not just those that come from the blind side. Interestingly, the NHL Players’ Association asked for that exact penalty when it was given the opportunity to speak at these meetings in 2009.
During that session, former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly and director of player affairs Glenn Healy told the GMs that more than 80 per cent of players were in favour of that penalty.
“There were crickets in the room,” Healy recalled. “That certainly grabbed absolutely no traction.”
The NHLPA wasn’t extended an invitation this week.
Players will still have an opportunity to have their opinion heard because any rule proposals from the GMs must be approved by the competition committee. That group includes five players, five managers and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.
Hockey is the ultimate cause and effect sport as every rule change seems to have unintended consequences. The GMs were widely applauded after opening up the game coming out of the lockout by eliminating obstruction and allowing long stretch passes through the neutral zone—changes some are now citing as a major reason why the sport has become more dangerous because it is too fast.
It will be impossible to please everybody.
Even though the public outcry seems to be louder than ever following Pacioretty’s injury, many inside the game are hoping the GMs avoid the temptation to overreact.
“I think we’re addressing these things but there’s knee-jerk reactions all over the place now because I believe the Internet and how that can fan the fire,” said Wilson. “We’ve just got to step back and realize I think our games have been great. We’re focused all on the wrong things at times. There are going to be injuries, unfortunately.
“I could trip you, you slide into the net on a breakaway and you break your collar bone off a post. Should I be suspended for tripping you on a breakaway?
“You’ve got to watch where we’re going here.”