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Gary Bettman introduces five-point plan to prevent, identify concussions; PHT dissects it

Mar 14, 2011, 8:00 PM EDT

Gary Bettman AP

As you may already know, the NHL’s GM meetings began today amid plenty of controversy regarding hits to the head and concussions. From Sidney Crosby‘s regrettable absence to the much-debated Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, the league had to do something.

It looks like Gary Bettman and other NHL executives have a plan … a five-point plan, to be exact. The five different points cover a wide array of issues that factor into concussion problems, from equipment size, to how affected players are treated and – in an obvious nod to Montreal’s infamous stanchion – even how rinks are constructed.

Before we break down Bettman’s plan in a point-by-point fashion, it’s important to note that the NHLPA released a statement in favor of many of Bettman’s ideas. For this to work, it’s vital that the league and its players association stay on the same page, so that’s as good a sign as any.

Anyway, let’s start with point one.

1. Brendan Shanahan has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the Players’ Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.

You would think that the advances in sporting equipment would reduce injuries, but the problem with borderline body armor in athletics is that such protection almost encourages players to be reckless. One of the disturbing findings in Malcolm Gladwell’s game-changing study of NFL concussions was that football players almost use their helmets as weapons rather than for mere protection. In hockey, shoulder pads are often the equivalent of helmets in football in that way, so making that gear less dangerous to other players – while still providing NHLers protection during board battles and collisions – is a great idea.

Of course, finding a good, happy medium might prove difficult.

This issue didn’t directly address Mark Messier’s campaign to change helmets, possibly because there might still be a need to prove that those designs (or something similar) actually do reduce risks.

2. The NHL Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management has been revised in three areas: 1) Mandatory removal from play if a player reports any listed symptoms or shows any listed signs (loss of consciousness … Motor incoordination/balance problems … Slow to get up following a hit to the head … blank or vacant look … Disorientation (unsure where he is) … Clutching the head after a hit … Visible facial injury in coombination with any of the above). 2) Examination by the team physician (as opposed to the athletic trainer) in a quiet place free from distraction. 3) Team physician is to use ‘an acute evaluation tool’ such as the NHL SCAT 2 [SCAT stands for Sports Concussion Assessment Tool] as opposed to a quick rinkside assessment.

In my mind, point No. 2 is probably more important than the other concerns combined. To some, it might be stunning that these measures haven’t already been instituted, but they’re better late than never. Considering the undercurrent of thought – fair or not – that maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins erred when they didn’t sit Sidney Crosby after he took that David Steckel hit, these alterations will help teams identify concussions in a more scientific way. This measure takes the decision away from a player or trainer who might want to get a then-unclear concussion victim back on the ice.

After all, when it comes to concussion recovery, it’s not like you can just apply an ice pack or “rub some dirt on it.”

3. The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of ‘repeat offenders’ with regard to Supplementary Discipline.

It’s probably overly simplistic to pin this all on that outrageous New York Islanders-Penguins fight frenzy, but such a rule will likely give the league more power to punish teams for carting out guys like Trevor Gillies to create havoc without any regard for their actual on-ice ability. Chance are, the Matt Cookes of the world will also be affected.

(Mario Lemieux wrote a letter to the league that gives more instructive ideas regarding how the league should handle these situations. We’ll get to that in another post.)

4. In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.

Translation: teams will be forced to remove “turnbuckles” or stanchions if at all possible. If nothing else, maybe the league can make them less dangerous to players. (Even if such a measure might make it unsafe for Pierre McGuire and other pundits to stand between players’ benches, which would be a bummer since those segments often provide great insight.)

Getting rid of the seamless glass is almost a no-brainer. That’s a much easier and more obvious fix than handling the stanchions, but both are good changes.

5. A ‘blue-ribbon’ committee of Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk — all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 — to examine topics relevant to the issue.

It’s a bit odd that Blake is on the committee since giving Peter Mueller a concussion was one of the last things he did before retiring from the NHL, but the “blue-ribbon committee” is a good idea overall. Especially if they make their finds public and encourage open communication regarding this tough issue.

***

Time will tell if these changes make a big difference, but it’s a much better way of attacking the problem than instituting Rule 48. These measures should eliminate some of the guesswork and gut reactions that come from identifying concussions, a crucial change considering the fact that repeated hits only increase the odds of greater problems.

It will be tough to stop concussions from happening altogether, but this plan has some promise in at least reducing them a bit.

  1. planoiceman - Mar 15, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    This has an undertone of NASCAR. NASCAR didn’t do much about safety until Dale Earnhardt was killed. Until one of the stars of the game, (ie Crosby) has been hurt, the NHL hasn’t done anything about it.

    Protecting the player is not about reducing shoulder or elbow pads, as Bettman has directed Shanahan to look into. It should be protecting the players head better.

    The first thing that needs to happen, starts with the players themselves. The players need to wear their helmets more snugly under the chin. They come off way too easily. The helmets also need to provide more protection than what is currently provided. Maybe even have some form of a chin protective bar, similar to what punters use in the NFL. Concussions come more from hits to the jaw than to the head. Also make it mandatory that every player wear a mouth guard. HockeyUSA requires all kids play with a mouth guard. The kids also wear full cages to protect their faces, so the mouth guards are only for concussion purposes only. So why not the NHL?

    Then there is the enforcement of the rules. There are lots of rules currently in the rule book that the referees only sometimes call. There has to be enforcement of any rules around dangerous hits. And make the penalty a major. Not just occasionally a major. Take the judgement out of the refs hands and make it the only choice.

    Then there is the enforcement from the league. Second offense is a automatic 30 game suspension. Third offense, automatic suspension from the NHL. Also make the coach and team responsible with a significant cash or draft choice penalty.

    Make the consequences of serious hits severe enough, and it will catch the player’s and team’s attention.

    The NHL is a contact sport, with high speed collisions, so concussions will still happen. But if the NHL really wants to reduce the incidence of concussions, they can do the necessary things to help keep the players healthy.

    NASCAR fixed their safety problem. Drivers routinely walk away from 200 mph accidents. Will the NHL fix this one? Only time will tell

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