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Roy MacGregor

At this moment of crisis, NHL general managers must act Add to ...

A year ago, shortly after NHL general managers departed Boca Raton, Fla., with what they believed was the best solution to head shots – Rule 48, which forbids blind-side hits – a strange light was seen rising over the water.

People came in their cars to watch and home video was dispatched to a local television station before it was discovered that some prankster had merely tied an LED bicycle light to a kite and let it go.

Some people – those hoping for a miracle, perhaps, or at least a revelation – were disappointed. Many, many more, however – all living far north of the Florida resort community – will be upset if there is no new light at all emanating from the GM meetings that begin Monday morning and finish up Wednesday.

Rule 48 was designed to put an end to head shots without seriously affecting the “physicality of the game.” While it has certainly led to fewer blind-side shots and welcome suspensions for those who break this rule, diagnosed concussions remain on the rise: 72 this season.

But so, too, is concern on the rise. A year ago there was not the irrefutable scientific proof that concussions cause permanent and potentially debilitating brain damage; a year ago Sidney Crosby, the game’s best player, was still on skates; a year ago Max Pacioretty didn’t have a fractured neck after being slammed into a stanchion by Zdeno Chara; a year ago Montreal police weren’t investigating such a hit; a year ago major sponsors such as Air Canada and VIA Rail weren’t telling the NHL to clean up its act; a year ago the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Quebec weren’t calling on the league to bring an end to on-ice violence; a year ago legendary goaltender and Canadian politician Ken Dryden wasn’t telling the hockey world that, “It’s time to stop being stupid.”

Given the NHL’s lack of action, it’s hardly surprising that among the sponsors not complaining are those dealing with erectile dysfunction.

Boca Raton may be a resort, but it is in danger this week of being turned into a bunker.

The 30 general managers are considered the main force for change in the NHL. They have the credibility of hockey – many of them played at the NHL level – and the clout of executive power. Change begins with them if change is to come.

Their fear of change is both legitimate and short-sighted. Hockey is a physical game and should remain physical. Hockey can endanger human life and, later, quality of human life – and this cries out for immediate addressing.

The GMs already precipitated major change following the 2004-05 lockout when they approved the tweaking of a game that had become almost impossible to watch. However, in opening up the game to much faster speed – allowing for two-line passes, calling obstruction penalties – they dramatically shifted the physics of the game. The laws of friction, balance, mechanics – not to mention the laws of common sense – now require that other parts of the game be adjusted if speed is to be maintained without endangering lives and future health.

But will they act? Hockey reporters with far superior contacts to this one – TSN’s Bob McKenzie, ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside, The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek – spent much of March canvassing the 30 GMs and could find no sense of unanimity heading into the meetings. In more limited exchanges, I found much the same.

A small minority of GMs, perhaps as few as two (Darcy Regier of the Buffalo Sabres, Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes) want eventually to see all shots to the head eliminated as much as possible. Another group, significantly larger, wants no change at all, believing that Rule 48 is enough even as fans, sponsors and politicians are crying enough is enough. Between these two poles sits a slight majority, reluctant to change but open to listening – which is at least a start.

One would hope that they will listen not just to each other but to a sense that is moving through hockey that something has to be done, something significant and lasting and something immediate.

The status quo is simply not acceptable. The NHL, by failing to show any action, is in grave danger of a sudden collapse in support from those fans, and some sponsors, that no longer wish to associate with mayhem that is naively and irresponsibly explained away by the phrase a man’s game.

Inaction would damage not only the game at the highest professional level, but would have serious repercussions at the lowest levels, where minor hockey enrolment is already a concern and where fear of head injury is now epidemic. No matter what rules lesser leagues have, the fact remains that children imitate their heroes.

They all still want to be Sidney Crosby; their parents, however, now worry that they might be Sidney Crosby.

They may be NHL general managers, but at this moment they are custodians, in more ways than they can imagine, or perhaps want, of the national game.

But this is no time for bunker mentality.

Perhaps it is appropriate that they are gathering in Florida just as clocks are turned ahead one hour for daylight savings time. There is also word this weekend that the massive earthquake that hit Japan sped up the earth’s rotation by 1.6 microseconds.

That might only be an hour and less than two-millionths of a second lost – but it’s something in a season the NHL can’t get through fast enough now.

The GMs have one glorious chance this week to slow things down, to hold up collective hand up and agree with those who say enough is enough.

It is indeed time to stop being stupid.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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