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Canadian Hockey League Commissioner David Branch listens during a press conference announcing the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships awarded to Calgary and Edmonton in Calgary, on Thursday Aug. 29, 2008. (LARRY MACDOUGAL)
Canadian Hockey League Commissioner David Branch listens during a press conference announcing the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships awarded to Calgary and Edmonton in Calgary, on Thursday Aug. 29, 2008. (LARRY MACDOUGAL)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

NHL taking a more cautious approach on concussions Add to ...

As someone immersed in hockey's slow-to-change culture, OHL president David Branch gives the NHL's new concussion protocols a tentative thumbs-up. From the preliminary data he saw emerging from this past week's NHL general managers' meetings, which instituted a series of new protocols to enhance the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions, Branch thought the tweaks represented a valuable step forward.

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"They are the best league in the world and they do have the platform to bring about change to our game like no other league can," Branch said. "And so their focus on head injuries is a real, real positive - and I'm sure, where possible, other leagues will follow, provided the resources are not beyond one's reach."

Branch's own league is far more progressive, given the OHL penalizes all hits to the head, a step the NHL was not prepared to take this week. According to Branch, the OHL is in its ninth season of administering concussion protocols to its players and says it took a long time to get a full buy-in from all its teams. Now that they finally have it, he says the numbers "look promising, but they are still not at a level where we're satisfied - and there's still more work to be done."

Branch's sentiment - that more work needs to be done - echoed around the hockey world this past week, as NHL GMs took the middle path, between making radical rule changes and staying with the status quo.

They tweaked instead of revamping, and the primary immediate change will apply to players showing any signs of being concussed in an on-ice incident. Instead of being examined on the bench, they will immediately be taken to the dressing room, where they will be examined by a doctor, and can only return to play if the doctor gives them the green light.

According to Calgary Flames' left winger Alex Tanguay, who had a serious concussion in 1998-99 playing junior hockey in Halifax, as long as doctors play it straight down the middle, the new system will work fine.

"We all know that doctors are paid by the team," Tanguay said. "But I think the doctors, their jobs are on the line and they are liable enough that they have to make sure the players are okay before going back."

It is because, as Tanguay noted, "As a player, you always want to play - and sometimes, during the game, you don't feel [the effects of a blow to the head]as much as you do afterward. I know, I had one in junior and three days later, I got back on the bike and kinda did the Sidney Crosby thing, where there was a setback, and what would have been a two-week thing turned out to be three months.

"I think it's a great step by the league - taking the players, to take a few minutes. Sometimes, when you cool down a little bit, you know more about what's going on."

But Phoenix Coyotes' assistant coach Dave King - a three-time Canadian Olympic coach, who was also an NHL head coach in both Calgary and Columbus - says that doctors are being put in a difficult spot now, forced to err on the side of caution, just to ensure there isn't a delayed reaction in the way Tanguay outlined.

"That happened to us in a game just the other night in Anaheim," King said. "Andrew Ebbett [a Coyotes' forward]got into a collision with a player. Both guys collided going for [he puck] and it was a head-on collision. He went to the dressing room right away and their doctor came over and in his estimation, it was not wise to play him.

"So we took him right out of the game. It takes a little bit of pressure off our trainers, but for a doctor on a visiting team, it's an easy call to say, 'hey, he's out.' If it's one of your own star players, I don't know. I'm just saying that's the only weakness in the whole thing, if you're a road team ..."

With almost 20 years of on-again, off-again NHL coaching experience, in which he also coached internationally, King has seen a dramatic rise in awareness when it comes to brain injuries - and their treatment.

"The most amazing thing is, in my three years in Calgary, I don't think we had a [diagnosed]concussion," he said. "I think that there were concussions probably, I just don't think they were picked up.

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