NHL’s board of governors discuss concussions and head shots at all-star game

RALEIGH, – An all-star weekend without injured superstar Sidney Crosby prompted the NHL’s board of governors to discuss whether the league is doing enough to prevent head injuries.

The governors met Saturday morning and received an update from the hockey operations department on the number of concussions players have suffered this season and what has been causing the injuries. The issue has generated plenty of attention since Crosby was sidelined earlier this month.

“It’s something the league is taking a very strong look at,” said Boston Bruins president Cam Neely. “Obviously, you want to keep the players in the lineup as much as possible. Concussions are an issue for the league and rightfully so.”

The issue will be discussed further when the 30 general managers hold their annual three-day meeting in March.

Last year, that group drafted a penalty for blindside head hits—known as rule 48—which gives referees the ability to call a minor or major for any “lateral, back pressure or blindside hit” where the principal point of contact is the head.

Even though the number of concussions hasn’t dropped, there is still support for that penalty.

“The new rule is having the desired effect,” said Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis. “There is evidence in games. Henrik (Sedin) was coming across (the middle), had lost the puck a little bit. And rather than hitting him in a vulnerable position, (Flyers captain Mike) Richards approached him much more cautiously and went for the puck.

“He tried to interrupt him that way. So there is some evidence of players beginning to react in respect to each other.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the concussion issue at length in his press conference before Saturday night’s skills competition. While refusing to disclose exact numbers, he said concussions are up this season over last season—but that they’re largely the result of “accidental or inadvertent situations.”

He reported that the number of concussions caused by blindside hits are actually down.

“It’s easy to say ‘the league needs to do x, y and z on concussions’ (but) it’s not that simple,” said Bettman. “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.

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“We spend a lot of effort on this subject, we know it’s important.”

The focus of the discussion among the managers will centre around whether more needs to be done. Some are willing to consider a rule where a penalty is called for any contact with the head while others—like Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke—believe nothing needs to be changed.

Burke believes the amount of hitting in the game would be reduced if the penalty was expanded.

“The concussion thing is the topic du jour,” he said. “It’ll be shoulders next year if there’s a rash of shoulder injuries. Frankly, I think the biggest reason we’re focused on concussions is because of Sidney.

“If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys all be around with cameras asking about concussions? I don’t think so.”

The issue has generated enough buzz that the league’s stakeholders felt it necessary to have a discussion on the topic. The rest of Saturday’s meeting mainly involved housekeeping issues—although billionaire Terry Pegula sat down with the executive committee earlier in the morning, bringing him one step closer to being approved as the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres.

Concussions continue to be the dominant issue in the game. A number of NHLers are currently sidelined with head injuries, including Bruins forward Marc Savard, who is recovering from his second concussion in less than a year.

“We have a player like Savard out—it’s a big deal for us and it’s a big deal in our market,” said Neely. “Every team goes through it. When you’ve got guys out of the lineup, it affects your club.”

Burke scoffs at the notion the NHL isn’t doing enough.

“I think the league has been a leader on concussions,” he said. “I think other leagues are looking to us for how we diagnose and treat concussions. It’s a serious issue in our game, it’s always going to be an issue in our game. I think there’s a rush to overreact on some of these things—concussions are not up dramatically.

“It’s a full-contact sport, there’s not out of bounds in our game and all the players are volunteers. These are guys that are doing it for a living, we’re going to have concussions.”