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NHL taking a more cautious approach on concussions

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.


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.

"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."

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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.

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"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.

"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.

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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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