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Intriguing ideas likely to be tabled at NHL GM meetings

Matthew Manor/2010 Getty Images

It was right around this time last year that the NHL finally started to make headway on head shots - and the larger issue of what to do with the startling rise in the number of diagnosed concussions that its players were dealing with. The GMs meet annually just after Hockey Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies; the Florida Panthers' David Booth had just taken his crushing hit from the Philadelphia Flyers' Mike Richards; and even the most jaded hawks amongst the league managers realized something needed to be done.

Eventually, a new rule penalizing some but not all head hits was introduced and right now, the league is in a monitoring phase, trying to decide whether this first step will act as enough of a deterrent (and significantly reduce the number of concussions) or if even stricter penalties (such as a complete head-shot ban) are needed.

Mostly these November GM meetings serve as the staging ground for new rule initiatives and set the agenda for changes that may come next year.

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Two intriguing ideas that will likely come up for discussion next week:

For starters, there is Detroit Red Wings' general manager Ken Holland's proposed tweak to the overtime rule, which would put less of an emphasis on shootouts to decide games that end in ties. Holland wants to introduce an eight-minute overtime period; with the first four minutes to be played four-on-four; and the final four minutes played three-on-three.

As former Columbus Blue Jackets' coach Ken Hitchcock noted at last summer's NHL research and development camp, when it gets to three-on-three play for any length of time, the puck usually ends up in the back of the net.

Four-on-four overtime started out as a fun run-and-gun initiative, but more and more looks like just a regular part of the game, with many teams seemingly more willing to take their chances in the shootout rather than exchange odd-man rushes, which is what made overtime so attractive in the beginning.

Theoretically anyway, a shootout would then only be used as a last resort - to break a tie in a game that wasn't decided in those eight minutes; and maybe become more of an event again, the way they were when they were first introduced. The expectation, however, is that they would become as rare as a tie game in the NFL - something that is always possible, but rarely ever happens.

A second idea that may be floated by NHL GMs also references the NFL - and the idea of introducing a coach's challenge to help a referee review a controversial play that he might not have seen correctly the first time out. There were a handful of goaltender interference calls in the first month that had a direct impact on the outcome of games that might have been reversed had the referees had access to the same replays that everybody else saw.

Florida lost a potential point that way; GM Dale Tallon is said to be supportive of introducing the topic, but it would require considerable debate. Could the coaches ask that every play be subject to review? Unlikely because it would be too unwieldy. Maybe you'd focus on goals only - and give them the right to challenge once per game if they didn't like the call on a goal.

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Boston Bruins' coach Claude Julien summed up the pros and cons of a coaching challenge nicely for the Boston Globe earlier this week, noting that it does have its perils and thus needs to be studied closely and worded carefully and specifically.

"You need structure,'' said Julien. "You can't keep challenging every play. It would have to be looked at pretty closely. We make mistakes as coaches, we make mistakes as players. It's almost like we're not willing to accept a referee making a mistake. If we do it, it's got to be a win-win situation. I think it has to be unanimous between the league, the coaches, and the referees. I'm open to discussion when it comes to that, but I'm not ready to stand here and say, 'We need this.' ''

SINGING THE BLUES NO MORE: Last June, when the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee met to vote on the class of 2010, old friend John Davidson, now president of the St. Louis Blues, had just helped engineer the trade with the Montreal Canadiens that brought Jaroslav Halak to Missouri. JD took a great deal of ribbing from colleagues about how he'd undermined the Habs by pilfering their playoff hero. Davidson is by nature ultra-conservative but he eventually got into the spirit of things and started needling the rest of us back. But if the first month is any indication, it looks as if Halak is just what the Blues needed to contend in the tough Central Division, which as of this morning, had five teams in a playoff spot (if you award the final berth to Nashville which had 13 points and a game in hand over Colorado). To paraphrase Sandie Shaw, Halak has been nothing less than brilliant since arriving in St. Louis. They have permitted only 17 goals against in their first 10 games; and he has three shutouts in his last five outings. The worry always in these situations is that a goaltender who goes on a startling playoff run comes back to earth when play resumes the next season. That hasn't happened to Halak and you'd have to think, as he settles into his new home and new playing life, things will only get better, not worse.

HHOF LOOKING FORWARD: Under Hockey Hall of Fame selection criteria, a player must be retired for three years before they are eligible for election (which, by the way is the answer to the question why, if women are allowed in now, Hayley Wickenheiser wasn't the first to get in). Wickenheiser is still playing, this year for the University of Calgary. There are some interesting names coming up for election in the near future however. Ed Belfour is eligible in 2011; Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Brendan Shanahan and Jeremy Roenick in 2012; and Scott Niedermayer, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk and Rob Blake in 2013.

A lose-lose deal?: At last year's trading deadline, Colorado and Phoenix swapped a couple of young players for each other, Wojtek Wolski joining the Coyotes, Peter Mueller going to the Avs - and both were instant hits in their new locales. It looked like a win-win for both teams, the ideal result in any trade. This year? Things have been a little different. After scoring more points (20 in 15 games with Colorado) than he did the entire year in Phoenix (17 in 54 games), Mueller suffered a concussion towards the end of last season; was reinjured in training camp; and hasn't played since. Wolski, meanwhile, sat out as a healthy scratch for two games, returning to the line-up for Wednesday's 4-3 win over Nashville, where he played with Lee Stempniak, another post-trading deadline sensation last season who is having a hard time finding his stride this year.

AND FINALLY: Colleague David Shoalts made an important point this week, one that NHL VP Brendan Shanahan also raised this past summer in the lead-up to the World Hockey Summit in Toronto - that concussions at the highest level of the sport, namely the NHL, represent only a small tip of the iceberg. According to Shanahan, greater progress in terms of diagnosis and treatment need to be made is at the grassroots level, where head trauma is also far too common, but the level of care isn't the same as what professional athletes receive.

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Shanahan's words bear repeating in the aftermath of a study released earlier this week that followed two unidentified junior hockey teams to track concussions - and found the numbers were startlingly higher than previously thought.

Shanahan talked about having seen his seven-year-old son involved in the game and expressed concern about youth hockey and concussions being properly diagnosed at that level.

"At the NHL level, we're so well-taken care of by our teams, our doctors and our trainers," said Shanahan. "We (in the NHL) have the ability to fine and suspend coaches that are deliberately trying to hurt each other.

"Personally, I don't know that all those safeguards are there in youth hockey, where some kids are young men playing against kids who are still boys. The difference between two 15-year-old boys the exact same age can be huge. It's one thing to be a man and have hockey be your profession; and we don't want any of those players hurt. I especially think about and care about the future of young kids, who are just trying to play hockey that are starting to report concussions and head injuries. I'd like to see those numbers really drop down."

Shanahan's views are valid and important.

More attention needs to be paid to the anonymous injuries that occur daily, but don't make the headlines, or cause a ripple in the fantasy hockey leagues, but can have the same debilitating effect on a person's quality of life for years to come.

Still, that doesn't take the NHL off the hook either.

So much of what happens at the lower levels of hockey is directly influenced by the game at the NHL level.

Accordingly, if the NHL took a leading role in getting concussions and head injuries down, there is a reasonable chance there will be a trickle-down effect to the lower levels of the game. Presumably, when the GMs meet next week, they will take an eyes-wide-open look at the first month's worth of head injuries and conclude that things can still get better.

A lot better.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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