Finally, a little sunlight.
The day could hardly have been better stage-managed for a sports league under severe public scrutiny for its inaction on head shots that many Canadian hockey fans believe have reached epidemic proportions.
On the very morning that concussed superstar Sidney Crosby took to skates for the first time in more than two months - and said he supported a ban on "deliberate" hits to the head - 30 mostly pasty-skinned National Hockey League general managers gathered in South Florida to chart a shift in direction.
They met in sunny 77-degree weather at The Beach Club at Boca Raton - Spanish for "mouse mouth" - before announcing changes that amount to more than a squeak but, in stopping short of banning all hits to the head, still short of a full roar.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman detailed the league's new five-point strategy to deal with head injuries that have already turned the 2010-2011 season into hockey's annus horribilis:
- The league's concussion protocol - under fire since Mr. Crosby was injured Jan. 1 but cleared to play his next game - will shift from a player being checked on the bench by the team trainer to that player being removed to "a quiet place" to be examined by a physician. This has been a recommendation of Charles Tator, the Toronto neurosurgeon who has waged a campaign of concussion awareness in the sport. The change is to take effect as quickly as possible, perhaps within the week.
- The spreading of responsibility. This summer, the league's board of governors will discuss making clubs "ultimately" responsible for the acts of their players. Disciplinary measures would also be taken against the club, possibly even the coach.
- The NHL will retain a "safety engineer" mandated to "soften up" the playing area, specifically hard boards and glass - a direct response to the devastating check last week by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara on Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty that saw the Montreal player slam into a stanchion and suffer a fractured vertebrae as well as a concussion.
- Former player and league vice-president Brendan Shanahan will work with the players' association on improved equipment, with an eye to making it more flexible and safer, both for the player doing the hitting and the one being hit.
- A new league committee composed of ex-players Mr. Shanahan and Rob Blake, both now league employees, and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman and Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk (also former star players) will study safety issues and the league's "new rules," which were instituted in 2005 to speed up the game.
"There's no magic bullet in dealing with this," Mr. Bettman told a news conference at the luxurious resort. The league stopped well short of banning all hits to the head, which is common in most other contact sports and which a few GMs and many hockey fans had been hoping would happen.
"It is an emotional, intense subject, especially for our fans," said Mr. Bettman. "We understand it, we get it; but dealing with this issue is not something you can just do whimsically or emotionally. You really have to understand what is going on."
To that end, the commissioner presented statistics gathered over the past two years, arguing that the vast majority of concussions have nothing to do with the controversial "head hunting" that has plagued the league's image over that same period.
The NHL says 26 per cent of the more than 70 concussions this season have been from "accidental" events, such as a player running into a teammate or opponent, falling or being hit by the puck. The number, the league says, has doubled from a year earlier.
Concussions from "illegal hits," according to the league, are only 17 per cent of the total - but 100 per cent of the bad press. Nearly half, 44 per cent, come from what the league deems "legal" hits - and half of that number occurred when the player being hit "legally" went into the glass or boards.
Fighting - the league's other huge PR problem - accounts for a mere 8 per cent of concussions, though the league did say that this was up from 2 per cent the year before.
In a small number of concussions, the league said determining the cause was inconclusive.
For Mr. Bettman, the statistics argue that the popular "notion that the players have no respect for each other and the players are going around hitting each other in the head on a regular basis" is simply false.
Some who had wished to see the league go further will argue that far too much is being made of "legal" hits when legality is often highly debatable. Others will say that the league is dealing with open barn doors here, seeking credit for better diagnosis of concussions rather than seeking to eliminate the need for diagnosis as much as possible.
Privately, NHL officials concede they are seeking to get more "in step with society's views" on head injuries - aware, at the same time, that these actions will not satisfy everyone.
"There's a balancing act there," said Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero, "but from my own personal standpoint, I don't like seeing head hits."
Coincidentally, Mr. Shero learned that his team's captain, Mr. Crosby, had returned to the ice on the very day that Mr. Shero's son, Christopher, spent his first full day back at school since suffering a concussion in a high-school hockey game.
"It's like my kid," said Mr. Shero of Mr. Crosby's return to skating. "He's trying to get a full day of school in today. That's good. That's progress."
As for the league's intention of punishing the teams and even the coaches of repeat offenders, Mr. Shero said "I think it's a great idea."
"There's an appetite for change," said Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier.
The question is, how much? "Our game is a full-contact sport," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. "There is no out of bounds. There are going to be injuries - knee injuries, shoulder injuries. We have to find a way to minimize the head injuries if we can."
The meetings will continue tomorrow and Wednesday at The Beach Club.
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