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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 ...

"Now, the red flag is there so much for the players. The message is to the players is, 'if you're not sure, don't go back out there, make sure.' And that's common sense. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, there wasn't the expertise. I don't remember guys going for MRIs as much. It's just changed. The science has changed the game. Our coaching profession's progressed. Why wouldn't the medical side progress in terms of identification of injuries?"

On the second day of meetings, GMs also instituted a policy whereby referees will be asked to be tougher on charging and boarding penalties.

King hailed that change, believing the players need to be more responsible for the way they play, and stop taking advantage of an opponent who inadvertently finds himself in a vulnerable position.

"They've got to look at keeping elbows down, keeping your hands and arms down, keeping away from the head, on those hits along the boards and in open ice," King said. "We could put it in the hands of the referees or the general managers, but still the players respecting the players and policing it themselves with proper checking technique, they have to realize, they are the greatest source of solutions."

Arena safety is another issue that came up at the GMs' meetings and six arenas - including the Bell Centre in Montreal and the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary - will have the seamless glass replaced by the more flexible plexiglass in the off-season. Engineers will be inspecting all the arenas in the foreseeable future, in order to make the workplace safer.

Flames defenceman Cory Sarich, who has had multiple diagnosed and undiagnosed concussions, says the glass in Calgary is "not too bad" compared to others where he's played.

"I played in SaskPlace in junior and that stuff is hard, there's no give. This stuff is not too bad. I haven't had too many run-ins with it. It gives enough.

"I like the new glass because of the safety reasons, but being a defenceman, it's such a pain in the rear. It really hurts your defensive opportunities in clearing pucks and things like that.

"It promotes offensive opportunities for other teams, because of crazy bounces, with pucks coming off the glass. It's 50-50, my view on that stuff."

Sarich's view is typical - sometimes, players will put results ahead of their own personal safety.

A particular area of concern for all leagues is the players' collective unwillingness to report concussion symptoms accurately and immediately to the team's medical or training staff.

It is a battle that Branch fights at his level all the time.

Last month, the OHL circulated a DVD to its players, coaches and trainers, attempting to educate players on what a concussion really is.

"The message to players is: You have to recognize these symptoms and you have an obligation to tell your team," Branch said. "We're saying to them: 'We've got a problem with head injuries in our game and you are part - part - of the solution. It wasn't intended to scare them. It wasn't a threat - that we plan to suspend you. It was intended to educate, to get buy-in from the players, and to support the players."

The OHL has a second DVD project on the go that will act as a coaching tool, highlighting what Branch says are the too-frequent times that the players put themselves in a vulnerable position on the ice, something else the NHL GMs discussed at length.

"You keep saying to yourself, 'why are they doing that?'" said Branch, who said the new DVD will teach a player how to protect himself through proper positioning: "'This is how you angle. This is how you post the boards.' It's really just another step to try to educate - because we think, certainly at our level, that's been a missing component."

King, one of the more progressive coaches of his generation, makes one final and important distinction - the difference between a hit and a collision. King does not know of any way to police, penalize or otherwise protect against a simple collision on the ice - by which he means two players, pursuing a puck with an equal shot at winning the chase, or what he calls a '50-50' puck. Frequently, what happens is they make contact and one player emerges worse for wear. According to the data tabulated by the NHL's hockey operations department and distributed to the GMs, an alarming number of concussions stemmed from that sort of inadvertent contact.

"Sometimes, you get an equal effort on a puck and it happens," King said. "It wasn't like one guy was going after another guy, who was clearly going to get the puck. A lot of collisions are 50-50 pucks where it's 'wham!' Some of our concussions are just accidental. It's the nature of our game."

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