BOCA RATON, Fla. – Change is in the air at the highest levels of the NHL.
The general managers followed commissioner Gary Bettman’s lead Tuesday by announcing they’d like to see a tighter enforcement of rules on charging and boarding. The group stopped short of recommending a ban on all head hits—something many fans have called for—but they’ve clearly decided to be more proactive in trying to reduce the number of concussions.
“It’s hard to change the game on the fly, that is for sure,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero. “But I think there’s certainly an appetite among the managers to have a safer environment, have the rules followed more aggressively, especially when it comes to boarding and charging … (and) protecting a vulnerable player.
“Everybody’s really open about these things and talking about them.”
It’s created a much different atmosphere at these meetings than in years past. Confronted with a growing number of significant injuries and armed with data about what is causing them, the GMs seem to have had their eyes opened to the issue—and have shown a collective willingness to open their minds as well.
In addition to the stricter penalties for charging and boarding, the GMs are calling for longer suspensions in instances where there is an illegal head hit, particularly for repeat offenders.
After the meetings wrap up on Wednesday, the competition committee will examine the official proposal drafted here. Ultimately, that group and the league’s board of governors must grant approval.
It’s a similar step to the one taken coming out of the lockout in 2005, when the league held a crackdown on hooking and holding infractions. The GMs believe a tougher standard on those issues will make a big difference.
“We want to apply the rules that are in the book more adamantly,” said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. “Head hits aren’t all going to be penalized—some people outside the game want (that for) any contact. … it’s not really a fair rule to consider given the size of the players and the nature of the game.
“The slamming of players into the boards at times, we just wanted a stronger application of the rule that’s there.”
Bettman kicked the meetings off Monday by outlining a five-point plan that was more focused on improving the treatment of concussions rather than preventing them. The GMs followed with a proposal that is predicated on the belief that the number of head injuries will drop if some of the rules are called as they were originally written.
For some, the crackdown won’t be enough.
According to the NHL, 44 per cent of the concussions suffered this season prior to March 1 were caused by legal hits—a sign that perhaps the definition of what’s legal needs to be changed. Even some GMs are still holding out hope that all head hits will eventually be penalized.
“It doesn’t change the way we feel about head hits being out of the game, zero tolerance for them,” said Shero. “At the same time, some of the things moving forward from the last couple of days are going to be a positive step. …
“I think we’ll make some change for the better.”
The biggest concern for those against a new rule is that it might reduce the amount of hitting in the game. There is a delicate balance to be struck.
“I think it’s a sense of let’s take out the stuff that we can take out without taking out hitting,” said Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “Because no one wants to take out hitting. That’s one elemental part of our game, it’s integral to the game, it’s distinctive to North American hockey.
“That’s the tightrope we’re walking on this.”
The managers are acutely aware of the public outcry for more safety in the game. The reaction was strongest last week when Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty suffered a concussion and a fractured vertebra after being driven into a stanchion by Boston’s Zdeno Chara.
The outcry that followed seems to have contributed to the current mood.
“Sometimes when the public gets so focused on something like that it improves the climate for change,” said Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business development. “This meeting was happening with or without the Chara hit. We didn’t just drum up 15 years of evidence and data over the last seven days.”
The initial reaction from players to the news out of the meetings was largely positive. Many reiterated Burke’s concerns about keeping a physical element in the game while also trying to make the sport safer.
“You sure appreciate that the league is looking out for us,” Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said Tuesday in Calgary. “As a player, you appreciate their concern is to keep us safe. If they’ve got doctors and medical people telling them this is the way you have to do it, then that’s what you have to do.”
There will be baby steps rather than sweeping changes.
Just as it’s taken time for some GMs to change their view on how best to address concussions, the group will need to continue monitoring what happens on the ice before altering the rulebook again. Governing the game is a constant work in progress.
“That’s why it’s not easy,” said Shanahan. “You can’t just come in today and propose 10 different rule changes. Then we’re just chasing our tails. We never said when the rules changed (after the lockout) `here are the rules for the next 100 years.’ The game, the players and the coaching constantly evolves.
“We will be doing this every three or four years. We will have to evolve with it.”
With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary.