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Scotty Bowman would go back to some of the old ways. (M. Spencer Green)
Scotty Bowman would go back to some of the old ways. (M. Spencer Green)

ROY MACGREGOR

Blame the NHL's New Rules for run of concussions? Add to ...

Sit back and prepare for a little blasphemy.

The epidemic concerning hockey headshots has to do with lack of respect among players, obviously, but that cannot explain away everything that has fallen upon the National Hockey League in recent years.

What about the New Rules?

This is an intriguing question raised by one Hall-of-Famer who prefers not to go public, fearing the sort of backlash that followed Mario Lemieux's tirade in which he accused the league of allowing a match between his Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders to disintegrate into a "travesty."

"Is it just a coincidence?" the one-time star asks. "But ever since they brought in those new rules, we've had an incredible run of concussions and suspensions against players taking runs at other players' heads."

The new rules, he says, were brought in for reasons everyone is aware of - to speed up a game that had become hopelessly bogged down in clutch-and-grab interference tactics. Fans who had been turned off by the defensive tactics and by the depressing owners' lockout of 2004-05 needed something to spark excitement in the game again, so "obstruction" rules were instated to open up the game and reward speed and skill that had largely been suffocated by defensive strategies.

"Now you have everybody looking for that long breakaway pass up the middle," he says. "And you have a defence unable to defend, because they can no longer slow anyone up."

The inability of the defence to grab on to players enough to slow matters down, he says, has led to a number of significant changes in the game. One is that the collisions are fiercer than before the lockout. The other is that, with the defence held back by the rules, it now falls on forwards to deliver many of the hits previously left to the defence - some of those hits ill-considered and often coming at dangerous angles, including from behind.

"Is it just a coincidence?" he asks again.

His solution is multifaceted. No more long passes through the middle. Defence again allowed to hamper the rush. Automatic icing to protect defence coming back for the puck. Automatic penalty if a player is hit anywhere from the neck up, accidental or not. And just in case anyone thinks this would take some of the urgency out of a close game, he'd put an end to points for the loser in overtime. "No sitting on a tie," he says. "You lose in overtime, you lose."

Next Monday at a resort in Boca Raton, Fla., NHL general managers will begin meeting to discuss various issues, none so pressing as the rising public and player concern over concussions and the long-term effect of having one's brains battered about, whether by fists, headhunting or even "clean" checks.

What this has initiated in hockey circles is a fascinating rethinking of what is and what could be. Change is undeniably in the air; what is uncertain is what that change might entail.

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman sides with the Hall-of-Famer when it comes to the danger involved in those exciting, dramatic, long breakaway passes. Bowman would bring back the red line that was instituted in 1943-44 to level the playing field when the skill level slipped during the war effort. Back then, it was to help weaker players catch up; today it would be to force all players to exercise caution as they moved through the neutral zone.

Pierre McGuire, the Bowman disciple and TSN analyst, thinks there is an answer that would not require bringing back the red line or allowing the old-style interference to return. "No need for that," he says. "What is needed is the Burke Bear Hug Rule," a refinement suggested by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke that would permit a defenceman to grab on to an opposing player as he puts him into the boards, thereby protecting the player being taken out.

McGuire would also call for "continued hard enforcement on hits from behind and cheap shots." He would also like to see - as Eric Lindros recently suggested in The Hockey News - a larger rink surface. Lindros would like to see the first row of seats replaced with ice; McGuire thinks a slight increase, even five extra feet, would suffice.

Pat Brisson, agent of concussed superstar Sidney Crosby, thinks "the new rules are great. It's much faster. It's entertaining hockey." But, he cautions, there is a huge problem with the speed of the players, the shape of the players and the hard equipment they now wear.

"I was looking at Luc Robitaille's shoulder pads he last wore in 2002," Brisson says. "That's only nine years ago. And those pads are like cushions - my 10-year-old's elbow pads are harder. You hit someone with pads like that and it's like armour. It's going to hurt."

Brisson wishes there were scientific data to show the speed at which collisions now take place in hockey. He is convinced collisions today occur at twice or more the force than was the case only a decade back.

"I don't want to see the game go back to clutching and grabbing," Brisson says.

"But the players are faster, the players are stronger, the equipment is harder and the brain is the same size."

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