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Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

Injury issue spotlight shifts to GMs Add to ...

One day - and he's not sure when that day will come - but Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier believes the NHL will eventually penalize all hits to the head.

It is the logical outcome, Regier says, of a path the league started down exactly a year ago, when NHL general managers unexpectedly passed a rule mid-season in order to ban blindside hits to the head.

The change came in the aftermath of two celebrated incidents that left Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard and Florida Panthers forward David Booth with serious concussions.

That same group of managers will meet again next week in Boca Raton, Fla., and the issue of head shots is expected to dominate the agenda again. The NHL has been without its most dominant player - Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby - since early January, and this week, Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty was left with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebrae in his neck after he was ridden into the boards by Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.

"To the extent that there are 360 degrees around a player's head in a circle," Regier said, "and we're now covering off under the current rules, I don't know how many degrees. But I would think, ultimately, we will have to consider 360 degrees [for hits to the head]

"That's the easy part. The really hard part is the role and responsibility that Colin [Campbell, the NHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations]has. If anyone watches enough games, the deciphering of that is really the hard part while maintaining the fabric of the game," the Sabres GM said. "I wouldn't view it as impossible. I would view it as doable, if that's ultimately where we end up."

A number of Regier's colleagues, including Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, also believe the league will eventually need to make all head hits illegal. Others, such as Toronto Maple Leafs boss Brian Burke, fear such a shift might too radically undermine the fabric of the game.

They represent the ranks of the hawks and the doves. Ultimately, the meeting in Boca Raton will determine if enough support has been transferred from one camp to the other to effect an immediate rule change or to put in motion rules that could reduce the number of concussions in the game.

According to Calgary Flames interim GM Jay Feaster, Murray Edwards, the team's part-owner, governor and a member of the powerful executive committee, has internally "expressed very strongly his belief that we need to do everything we can to protect our players and their health."

"While certainly what was happened in terms of rule 48 has been a good start in reducing the number of blindside hits, we still need to continue looking at ways of getting even better," Feaster said. "And that's where we're at as an organization and what we're anxious to see in terms of the materials that will be presented at the upcoming meetings of the GMs."

Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said he is going into the meetings "with an open mind. I'm not going to say we have to change anything, but it's something we really seriously have to consider because it's becoming very hard.

"My own personal opinion is that the hawks are becoming less - and everybody's concerned with what's happening to our game and our players."

Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk says his personal peeve is with fringe players who get five-to-seven minutes of ice time per night and use it to skate "90 feet across the ice" to run an opposing player without paying any attention to the puck.

"Do we need to enforce charging penalties more?" Nieuwendyk asked, adding: "It's bad for business when your biggest stars - Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard, Brad Richards - are out of the game. It'd be like LeBron James not playing basketball. I think it's a very real question: 'Where are we going next with our game?' " Regier noted concussions were just part of an overall injury epidemic that has plagued the game in the post-lockout era, where the increase in speed has resulted in far-more violent collisions than before.

"At one point, I went through all the injuries in the league, and there were 124 players out on that given night," Regier said. "That's a lot. I mean, in a lot of ways, we have a great game in terms of how competitive it is and how the fans of so many teams get to root for them this late in the season. But with that, it appears there comes a price.

"Just by the numbers, a percentage of them have to be concussions. Does it all lie with the National Hockey League, or does it need to be addressed at every individual level of hockey as well?"

Pacioretty's injury created a stir across the country, and enticed normally reticent organizations such as the Canadiens into taking a public stand on the issue.

Regier suggested while the NHL is the focal point now, it is important to address the issue at every level of hockey. "I had a conversation with [AHL president]Dave Andrews. I said: 'I think we have an even greater responsibility there, because every one of these guys that does play in the American Hockey League will have a life after hockey that can't be financially supported alone by what he earned in the game.'"

Once upon a time, the GMs' meetings in Florida were a chance to catch up with one another for a morning, before adjourning to the golf course. Not any more.

Regier, for his part, is looking forward to it and, based on a preliminary glance at the agenda, said the league is prepared for the discussion.

"We are supplied with greater facts than we've ever seen before," he said, "and I suspect they're even more prepared this time around. It's really important to get the facts because it gives a certain foundation to the decision-making process. Otherwise, without the facts, fear creeps in and you just don't have enough support for positions."

As usual, the GMs will be assigned smaller breakout groups to discuss different aspects of the issue.

"We're going to have two days of conversation on this," Nieuwendyk said. "Something should come out of that discussion."

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