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Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier speaks to reporters after a news conference announcing the sale of the NHL hockey team in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. (David Duprey)
Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier speaks to reporters after a news conference announcing the sale of the NHL hockey team in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. (David Duprey)

ROY MACGREGOR

Darcy Regier's goal is to eliminate concussions in hockey Add to ...

They call him Rain Man.

The reference is to the 1988 Dustin Hoffman-Tom Cruise movie and the character Raymond, who could tell you how much snow fell on a January day 20 years ago or could recite the telephone number of a person he just met, all thanks to studying the telephone book each night.

The tag comes courtesy of National Hockey League senior vice-president Colin Campbell. The 29 other league general managers think it's funny, and Darcy Regier, general manager of the Buffalo Sabres since 1997, doesn't mind at all.

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When it comes to concussion talk, Regier is hockey's equivalent of Raymond, who liked to dare people to drop a box of matches on the floor so he could instantly calculate how many spilled.

"I don't have an accounting background," the 54-year-old former defenceman says on a sunny day as the NHL wrapped up three days of talks on the head injuries that have plagued the league this winter. "But if I'm trying to figure something out and I don't have a context for it, I usually end up gravitating toward numbers."

The NHL is closing in on 100 concussions this year, almost all of them caused by the collision of two players.

"We average probably 45 hits in an NHL game," Regier calculates as he talks. "And there's 1,230 games in a season, so that makes up somewhere in the range of 50,000 hits."

Regier is the NHL's leading dove, one of three general managers who speak openly of banning all hits to the head (the others are the Pittsburgh Penguins' Ray Shero and Carolina Hurricanes' Jim Rutherford). Regier is also one of a larger group who argued, successfully, for the steps taken so far: last year's Rule 48, which banned blindside hits, and this year's decision to have a doctor rather than a trainer determine the seriousness of a hit to the head. They also led the push for this week's decision to begin calling more boarding and charging penalties next season.

"For me," Regier says, "the goal is to eliminate concussions. I could say, 'Reduce those 100 to 20, or to 10,' but the goal should be to eliminate entirely. I think ultimately we have to take a 360 approach [full protection from all sides]to protect the head.

"So, in a perfect world, I would like to be able to go in and just pull out those 100 concussions from the 50,000 hits and say, 'Okay, now we're at 49,900 hits and we haven't changed the game. You're missing 100 hits and we have eliminated all the concussions, and we didn't hurt the game.'"

He knows, however, that this is dreaming.

"It's not practical," Regier says. "It's not possible."

There will always be accidental injuries. Players run into their own teammates. Players fall and strike their heads on the ice. Fighting remains a part of the game despite arguments in favour of banning it.

"That probably means we're not getting to zero," Regier says. But that is not to say that the goal of elimination is lost.

"The question is, to what extent can we manage it?" he says. "By this I mean where are most of these hits happening? Where on the ice? Is it close to the boards? Is it a result of charging? Is it a result of the [back-of-the-net]trapezoid, meaning that the goalies don't come out to play pucks any more? Is it a result of having taken the centre line out?"

He saw, as lately all have noted, how the game changed after new rules were implemented following the 2004-05 lockout. By calling obstruction, the game sped up, which led to more violent collisions, which led to more concussions.

"I've been around long enough," Regier says, "to know that if we don't do the work and the studying, when we make changes, you might get lucky enough to hit that which you've tried to change - you might. But you can be guaranteed that there will be a lot of side effects, or unintended, unexpected consequences. So, for me it becomes really important that someone has to do a lot of work."

Regier's passion for studying cause and effect comes from personal experience. The native of Swift Current, Sask., suffered his first concussion as a junior playing for Prince Albert when he lost a fight in Regina and found himself sitting in the penalty box without the slightest notion of where he was. The coach sent Regier and backup goaltender Roland Boutin to the dressing room, where Boutin kept asking Regier where he was and Regier couldn't answer. "I can remember sitting there guessing," Regier says. "I was certainly conscious, but I had no idea where I was. And Rollie thought that was the funniest thing. He would repeat the question, 'Do you know where you are?' and I kept guessing. They had a lot of fun with it.

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