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Hockey summit will focus on player safety

Head trainer Richard Stinziano of the New Jersey Devils goes to the aid of Patrik Elias of the Devils who lies motionless on the ice after being checked by Ryan Wilson of the Colorado Avalanche during NHL action at the Pepsi Center on January 16, 2010 in Denver, Colorado.

David Zalubowski/The Globe and Mail

More details emerged Wednesday about Hockey Canada's plan to convene a second national hockey summit to discuss, among other issues, the hot-button issue of player safety. The first Open Ice Summit, held in 1999, focused on player development issues. This time around, the emphasis will be on the player, according to Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson.

"It's all about the player - player safety, player skills, player movement - but it will all be focused around the player."

Nicholson, who previously expressed alarm about the growing incidence of concussions at every level of hockey, said: "If the player isn't safe, he's not going to play. The player is the focus; and safety is the major component of that with all level of players."

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Nicholson said Wednesday he hopes to be able to unveil a full Open Ice Summit agenda on the first Sunday of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, as all the stakeholders will be in one venue at the time. The full session would likely take place some time in late August, same as it was 11 years ago. It is believed that Molson's will once again be the title sponsor for the event.

The issue of head shots rose again this past week when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League banned Rouyn Noranda Huskies forward Patrice Cormier for the balance of the season and playoffs for an elbow to the head of Quebec Remparts defenceman Mikael Tam that left Tam convulsing on the ice.

Cormier was captain of Canada's silver-medal winning 2010 world junior hockey team.

Nicholson has the IIHF aboard for the Summit but has yet to receive confirmation from the NHL as to its participation.

The IIHF, under president Rene Fasel, has stressed that there will be a no-tolerance policy in place for hits to the head. Nicholson said he has already had two lengthy discussions with Fasel on the issue.

"Personally, I thought there could have been some further suspensions at the world juniors," said Nicholson. "I know they will emphasize in the coaches meetings at the Olympics that they're going to call penalties on hits to the head."

The larger issue is what will happen with the NHL and its - to date - secondary role in leading the discussion. Most of the major penalties assessed for head shots this year came at the junior level.

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Earlier this season, a hit to the head by the Philadelphia Flyers' Mike Richards on the Florida Panthers' David Booth started an internal debate at the NHL level about whether to amend the league's rules relating to checks to the head. Booth has missed the better part of two months convalescing. It was the Richards hit on Booth that convinced NHL general managers in their November get-together to review the issue at their next meeting in March.

Thus far, the leadership on the issue has come at the major junior level, not from the NHL.

"The National Hockey League has not come out with as strong on suspensions as the Canadian Hockey League," said Nicholson. "It just hasn't. Why that is? I guess it's because it's professional hockey … It's a business, but it's also human beings we're talking about. I certainly had discussions with Dave Branch on the issue of 16-year-old kids. That is a concern. They're going to be good hockey players or great players, but we certainly don't want to put them in an unsafe position.

"The NHL hopefully they'll start to have stronger suspensions for hitting to the head. I understand their interpretation. It's difficult with the different-sized players in the league - but somehow we have to get rid of it at all levels."

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