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NHL’s new concussion protocol goes into effect tonight and what that means from here on out

Mar 16, 2011, 4:02 PM EDT

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During this week’s GM meetings in Florida we’ve been keeping tabs on what the NHL is looking to do to help remedy the rash of concussions and head injuries in the league. Gary Bettman proposed a five point plan for teams to do their part to help treat players during the game and potentially save them the trouble of being injured further when no symptoms are apparent.

Today we learn from Yahoo’s Nick Cotsonika (via Predators GM David Poile) that the new treatment protocol will go into effect beginning with tonight’s games across the league. That means if a player has suffered an apparent concussion or head injury they must go back to the locker room and be treated by a doctor to see if they have, indeed, suffered a concussion.

It’s a forward step for the league in trying to do something about an issue that’s been plaguing the league for various different reasons the last few seasons. Without a doubt the speed of the game is causing problems and there’s not much the league can do about that without relaxing the rules on obstruction and threatening the return of the dead puck era.

The one thing they can control is the medical treatment side of things and that’s what they’ve zeroed in on. Being more efficient with such matters would help. After all, we saw both Ian Laperriere and Marc Savard return relatively quickly during the playoffs from brutal concussions. Savard suffered his hit in March and returned for the Bruins series against Philadelphia. He admitted after the season was over that he may have come back too soon.

Laperriere was struck in the face with a slap shot during the Flyers opening round series against New Jersey yet still found a way to return to action in the Stanley Cup final. Laperriere also admitted to coming back too soon and won’t play at all this season thanks to lingering post-concussion syndrome effects.

Of course, if the NHL wants things to be taken serious they need to be firm about what they’re doing. So many of the NHL’s new rules and regulations are often enforced right away and for a year or two and then seemingly forgotten about. The Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika wrote a scathing piece today reminding us about how the league can let things slip away in the wake of making a big stand (subscription required). Brad Richards in particular comes into focus after dealing with a concussion suffered thanks to a Sami Pahlsson elbow.

And that is at the heart of Richards’ issue right now. If you and I can readily see a replay of an incident that should not be in hockey, then why isn’t something being done about it? Richards’ experience is personal, and it can come off as whining a bit because really nobody did a thing about it. He was hit in the jaw by an elbow on what appeared to be an innocuous play at the end of a game. Richards understands that officials wouldn’t have seen it. He understands that “things happen.”

What he doesn’t understand is how the man who threw that elbow — Columbus center Sami Pahlsson — didn’t at least get a memo from the league complete with a video of the incident sent to his I-phone saying it was wrong. There are rules against those kinds of hits. So …. shouldn’t something have been done about it?

Now, there are penalties missed in every game. There’s no way to call games at top speed and expect to get everything right. But we’re not worried about the outcome of a game here, we’re worried about the health of a league. To understand Richards’ situation, you have to understand where he has been for the past month.

Richards is right and the NHL can be better in handling these things. They can certainly be better about handling punishment and keeping things shrouded in secrecy does no one any favors. Of course, the league seems to always operate in secrecy in hopes that sometimes things will resolve themselves and go away.

In 2003 the NHL was going to take a major stand on diving and punish those busted for diving in games. Similar hot button topic decrees have come and gone by the wayside. We’ve seen obstruction find its way back into the game now since the lockout after seeing it called repeatedly for the two years following that. Being cynical about how the NHL is handling this issue is warranted as they’ve never really shown the ability to hold strong to such matters in the past. Don’t get us started about the NHL’s ability to punish players in a manner that makes sense.

On the positive side of things, if the NHL can adapt to this and make it work it’s a win over the long haul. There’s going to be bumps in the road to start and there’s surely going to be further controversy. Just wait until a star player has to sit out a crucial point of the game for 15 minutes while he’s treated and examined further and the head coach seethes over not being able to have him on the ice. Hopefully that won’t happen and players will be able to avoid more problems, but with how things have gone this season don’t bet on it.

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