While the uproar over the NHL's latest serious head injury included the Prime Minister and the Sports Minister joining the debate, the executive director of the players' association said all sides should separate the noise from what needs to be done to make the game safer for its participants.
"Do people think things are actually more dangerous than they were a few years ago?" Donald Fehr said Wednesday. "Or is it the increased scrutiny [on head hits]which is causing us to hear a lot more about it?"
Fehr declined to comment directly on the hit by Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara that left Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty with a concussion and fractured neck vertebra, or on the NHL's decision not to suspend Chara.
Fehr, who spent 23 years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has been with the NHLPA since last December. He said he is not yet knowledgeable enough about on-ice matters to comment on individual cases.
"I don't know enough about [Chara's hit]and haven't had a chance to talk to former players on staff and some current players to get their reactions to it, so I'm going to have to pass on that one," Fehr said.
However, he did say his preliminary inquiries indicated the design of the glass and the posts around the players' benches at the Bell Centre in Montreal may have played a role in Pacioretty's injuries. Chara rode Pacioretty into the boards along the benches and the Habs winger's head struck a padded post.
Other factors need to be considered as well, such as the recent history of hard feelings between the Bruins and Canadiens, Fehr said.
"It has been suggested to me that the location where this took place on the ice may have contributed to it, but I don't know that," he said. "Where you have increased scrutiny as things develop over time, where you have increased [media]coverage, where there have been really physical games between these teams, it doesn't surprise me that you get the increased focus."
The NHLPA is examining all aspects of the overall issue of hits to the head and concussions, Fehr said. Since the union is still putting together its own proposals, Fehr declined to identify them.
He also said the NHLPA will not be asking the general managers, whose annual meetings next week in Florida are expected to be devoted to this issue, to consider anything in particular.
At this point, it is expected the working group on concussions, which is a joint NHL-NHLPA committee of doctors and staff members, will ask the GMs to recommend a change in the concussion protocol for injured players.
The group is expected to recommend that a player suspected of having a concussion has to be cleared by a doctor after a dressing-room examination before he can return to play. At present, that clearance can be given on the bench by a trainer.
However, Fehr expects to discuss any additional union proposals with the NHL in advance of the annual meeting of the league's competition committee, which is comprised of players, GMs and owners. He would like to reach an agreement with the GMs on any changes before the committee meets in June.
All proposals for changes in rules or procedures, including any that come from the GMs' meetings, have to be approved by the competition committee before they can go to the league governors for final approval.
The role of a players' union is more than simply negotiating a collective agreement, Fehr said. It has a responsibility to "negotiate all terms of employment," he said, which includes health and safety issues, and to educate its members.
That is why players need to pay attention to things like the recent announcement that examination of the brain tissue of the late Bob Probert showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That made him the second former professional hockey player to be found with the degenerative disease. The first was Reggie Fleming, who suffered from dementia when he died in 2009.
"I have two separate reactions," Fehr said. "The institutional reaction is this is the kind of thing players need to know about and they need to pay attention to, which is distinct from any conclusions they draw.
"My personal reaction is whenever you have a study like that, it is a serious issue and you need to examine it and try to reach whatever conclusion can be fairly drawn from it."