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Sidney Crosby. Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images (Brian Babineau/2011 NHLI)
Sidney Crosby. Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images (Brian Babineau/2011 NHLI)

ROY MACGREGOR

NHL showing vital signs after concussion conundrum Add to ...

In the end it was baby steps, but at least a game that has been knocked flat on its backside this winter was up and moving.

The National Hockey League general managers did not - as was expected only by the naïve and the praying - move to an outright ban on shots to the head in this Season of the Concussion, but they did do something at their meetings here.

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One change takes place immediately. As of Wednesday night's matches, the protocol for examination has changed. No longer will a trainer look for signs of a concussion while the player sits on the bench. Instead, the player will be taken to a "quiet place" for examination by a physician.

Other changes - "softening" boards and glass, examining equipment, looking into supplemental punishment for coaches and owners, more and longer suspensions, tightening up calls on boarding and charging - will come later.

As for the actual game itself, director of hockey operations Colin Campbell announced at the end of three days of meetings, "Nothing changes from here to the end of the season."

As for public opinion, perhaps the same can be said. One more concussion such as the one suffered by Sidney Crosby, the game's greatest player, who remains sidelined from a New Year's Day hit, or one more violent incident such as the fractured vertebra suffered by Montreal's Max Pacioretty when he was slammed into a stanchion by Boston's Zdeno Chara, and the howling will take up again.

There is also the possibility that the new diagnostic protocol, despite its good intentions, will become controversial, especially as the attending physician will at times be dealing with visiting players.

"What happens," Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero asks, "if our doctor says [Washington Capitals star Alexander]Ovechkin can't go back in. How does that go over?"

Terribly, of course, with Washington fans, likely with Washington coach Bruce Boudreau on the opposite bench, and perhaps even with the player himself, as players are largely considered unreliable witnesses when it comes to determining their own readiness.

And yet, as Shero added, "It's a step in the right direction."

The task assigned these 30 team leaders in Florida was simple yet next to impossible, said Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray: "Making sure everything is correct in the game, which is never going to happen."

There is also the matter of general agreement, for while the GMs did act on head shots - even if they would not go all the way to banning all such hits, even accidental - they could not agree on a variety of other issues. Murray, for example, raised the possibility of going back to the old-fashioned red-line rule for offside, which he believes would reduce speed, and consequently collision, but he could not get support.

"We've become all-consumed about speed and contact rather than the skill we saw previously," Murray said.

They talked about video reviews, about allowing a "coach's challenge" on one official call per game, about refining and even redefining rules, but in the end reached full agreement only on Monday's announced changes in diagnosis and the initiatives to look into safer rinks and equipment.

"Just like that great game of golf," Nashville Predators GM David Poile said, "sometimes it's a series of adjustment. You just have to adjust."

"The whole thing makes me nervous," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "We've got to be careful where we take it. I think we have to go slowly here."

They are indeed going slowly, and there is undeniable support for caution, but there is also a sense that the sands have shifted in the league as much as along the beach just a few steps from where they met.

"It's not so much a fear of changing the game," league vice-president Brendan Shanahan said. The fear, rather, is more about being too reactive and having to adjust constantly. As Shanahan put it, "We don't want to take from Peter to pay Paul … we'd be chasing our own tails."

There is a powerful, and false, sense out there that the game rarely changes and that change should be avoided at almost all cost. As one GM put it earlier in the week, they are dealing with a game and the "way it has been played for most of its existence."

And yet, as Harry Neale once put it, "If tradition means so much, how come there's artificial ice?"

Just consider this light overview of change in hockey since it became a professional game:

When they dropped the rover in 1911, traditionalists howled that teams needed that sixth skater on the ice.

When they allowed the first forward pass in 1927, it was considered by many to be the ruin of hockey.

The game went from two periods to three periods. Goalies, who seem never to stand up today, were once penalized for going down.

The red line was put in to slow down play, taken out to speed up play, and may yet be put back in to slow play again.

It was once considered absurd when they allowed teams to dress 12 players. Now they dress almost twice that number.

Teams didn't used to change ends at the ends of each period. Hand passes went from illegal to legal, sometimes. There used to be a penalty for passing the puck back into your own zone, standard practice today while killing penalties.

Goaltenders used to be fair game outside the crease and protected within; today they are protected outside the crease and seem fair game within.

Goals used to be denied if any part of an opposition player was in the crease; today's goals are often scored with the entire opposition roster in the crease.

Penalties used to run the full two minutes. There didn't used to be offsetting penalties.

No curves on blades, restricted curves, any curve … offsides automatically called, offsides delayed … one referee, two referees … ties are good, ties are to be avoided with overtime … no shootouts, shootouts …

Get the point? Change is not only possible, it's been a constant in hockey.

And more may be coming.

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, like a handful of others, arrived hoping for a blanket rule on all hits to the head. It didn't happen.

"I'm satisfied with what we've done here," he said. "This is a pretty big step in making the game safer." As for that potential all-encompassing ban, "We may get to that point, let's see."

Public opinion will be watching.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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