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Quebec Remparts' Mikael Tam is wheeled off the ice on a stretcher following a hit from Rouyn Noranda's Patrice Cormier during QMJHL action in Rouyn-Noranda, Que, Sunday, Jan.17, 2010. Tam was listed in stable condition in hospital after taking an elbow to the head from Cormier, who captained Canada at the recent world junior hockey championship.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dominic Chamberland (Dominique Chamberland)
Quebec Remparts' Mikael Tam is wheeled off the ice on a stretcher following a hit from Rouyn Noranda's Patrice Cormier during QMJHL action in Rouyn-Noranda, Que, Sunday, Jan.17, 2010. Tam was listed in stable condition in hospital after taking an elbow to the head from Cormier, who captained Canada at the recent world junior hockey championship.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dominic Chamberland (Dominique Chamberland)

NHL Weekend

Old-school evolution Add to ...

Nearly 23 years into life as the New Jersey Devils general manager, one of the longest tenures in that role in league history, Lou Lamoriello will tell you he has seen a lot of progress in the NHL.

Fewer violent incidents. More movement towards improved player safety. And, overall, improving the game to the point it's at now, where he likes it.

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Where he's reluctant to continue to see change, however, is in joining the recent chorus over instituting a rule against headshots - something that is again a topic of conversation this week after several Canadian politicians criticized the NHL's stance on blows to the head.

When the subject was raised yesterday in reference to Devils prospect Patrice Cormier's recent suspension for the rest of the Canadian junior season, the 67-year-old face of the franchise launched into a lengthy soliloquy on the issue of penalizing what has, for all his years in hockey, been "a good hit."

Like many in the game today, Lamoriello said the NHL has to be "very careful" when considering changing the definition of a legal body check.

"There are 60,000 hits, approximately, in one season," said Lamoriello, perched in his chair in a posh office high in the Prudential Center. "Out of those 60,000, we might have a handful of situations that become dangerous.

"Somebody gets hurt. And those upstage everything about the game. Under no set of circumstances can we look beyond doing everything we can to prevent those five or six instances."

Contrary to a local report that resulted in widespread criticism of the Devils GM, however, Lamoriello said he never said Cormier - who elbowed Quebec Remparts defenceman Mikael Tam in the head earlier this month, leaving Tam unconscious and convulsing on the ice - shouldn't receive a lengthy suspension for his misdeed, but rather that legal authorities should not be involved.

It was a hit that, in other words, was a dangerous one, one of the "five or six" worthy of severe punishment.

It's the other 59,995 Lamoriello is leery of cracking down on - even in the face of data showing the long-term damage concussions can cause.

"We have to be very careful where we want our game to go," he said.

"It's a very, very fine line. … We have already changed the game, quite a bit. The game is nowhere [as dangerous]compared to where it was years ago.

"Anybody who doesn't think the league, the officials are constantly working to try to minimize injuries, they've got their head in the sand. They just want something to complain about or pick on. Safety is something that is of the highest priority in everything that's done. I know, I'm in these meetings. I see the discussions, I see the care that goes into this. It's more than you'd ever think. More than you'd ever think."

But when asked about the number of concussions in the NHL each season - a figure one recent study listed as about 60 per season over the past decade - Lamoriello's old-school roots show prominently.

"I still don't know what the definition of a concussion is," he said when asked about the prevalence of head injuries in the NHL.

"Sorry. To me that is something I don't want to even get on the topic of. I've read and seen everything. I don't know. Numbers - that's another thing: take out of context and let's see what we can do. I've got to be very careful in how I respond, but you can take anything out of context."

On the subject of the headshot ban now in effect in the junior OHL, meanwhile, Lamoriello doesn't dismiss the idea outright, instead saying only that hockey will continue to evolve over time, just as violent incidents of stick-swinging and brawling from 20 or 30 years ago have been eliminated.

He also acknowledged that, with bigger, faster players and new equipment that contributes to some of the league's injury issues, more changes could be on the way.

"I like where [the game]is now, but it needs a constant monitoring," Lamoriello said. "Every time you monitor or correct, something always happens. It's a game. It's style, it's coaching. People look for ways of improving it.

"But I will tell you, and I say this because you can see in my passion and strong conviction, the league is constantly [working to prevent injuries] I don't want any of my players hurt."

Even so, Lamoriello adds, injuries - and some of the "mistakes" that result in them - are impossible to eliminate entirely.

"We have to have that idealistic approach to try and correct everything," he said. "But we have to be realistic. It's no different than cars on the highway."

 

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