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Yes, pro hockey can be a safer game
NHL general managers staged their annual March meetings under pressure from fans and pundits to do more to improve player safety.
These meetings came a week after Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty suffered a concussion and broken vertebra from being checked into a stanchion by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, fueling criticism the league wasn't doing enough to protect players from serious head injuries.
Commissioner Gary Bettman wasted little time addressing the issue following the first day of the meetings, presenting a five-point plan for player safety:
• Examine players' equipment in hopes of finding a way to prevent them from inflicting more serious injury on opponents with body checks without jeopardizing the wearer's safety.
• Improve the immediate assessment of concussions by having the injured players treated by the team doctor for 15 minutes in a quiet room rather than by a trainer on the bench.
• Make teams more responsible for the actions of their players, particularly those considered repeat offenders. Bettman said he would be meeting with the Board of Governors in June to discuss potential penalties.
• Improve rink safety, especially those arenas still using seamless glass. The plan would have them switch over to Plexiglas, which has more “give” and thus better absorbs the force from body checks, rather than the player absorbing the full impact.
The league also will examine other arena issues, including better padding on stanchions, or perhaps re-engineering areas where stanchions could be moved in hopes of preventing more injuries like those suffered by Pacioretty.
• A committee of four former players — Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Rob Blake and Joe Nieuwendyk — would head up an ongoing examination to work on the issues and recommendations presented by the general managers during this week's meetings.
The commissioner's plan indicates the league hierarchy is at least willing to listen to concerns about player safety, not just from fans and pundits but also from within their ranks, and make recommendations. Still, it remains to be seen how many of these recommendations become implemented.
Improving the initial assessment of players suspected of concussion injuries will be implemented at once and is certainly worthwhile. Still, expect some criticism from coaches, who could argue a doctor could overrule a player's return to action only to discover postgame he wasn't suffering concussion symptoms.
Modification of player equipment is long overdue, particularly shoulder and elbow pads, which are encased in hard plastic and can inflict serious injuries upon unsuspecting opponents.
Flamboyant NHL commentator Don Cherry has been leading the charge on this issue for more than a decade but was largely ignored by the league until now.
Penalizing teams with repeat offenders will work only if there's real teeth in the punishment. Pittsburgh Penguins principal owner Mario Lemieux recently sent a letter to Bettman requesting the league impose heavy fines, as much as $1 million, on teams with players who deliberately injure opponents, particularly repeat offenders.
Lemieux didn't excuse his club, noting that under the system he's proposing his franchise would have been fined $600,000 this season because of the suspension of two players.
It's unlikely however his suggestion will fly with his fellow team owners, who probably will prefer the offending player, rather than the club, receive the full weight of punishment.
Inspecting arenas and addressing potential hazards is also long overdue. For years players have been hurt getting “rammed into the turnbuckle” but until Pacioretty's injury little had been done to address this problem.
A committee of former players is a good idea. But as Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette suggested, it might also help if a current player or two or perhaps a doctor were part of it to provide their input.
The suggestion of stiffer punishments for charging and boarding will also be examined, though NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson observed referees would have to determine if the player making the hit was attempting to separate his opponent from the puck or merely to inflict injury.
What wasn't implemented was an outright ban on hits to the head, though NHL.com reported there was “significant discussion” about addressing dangerous head shots or those delivered to vulnerable players.
Complicating the concussion issue was the fact data unveiled this week revealing 44 percent of those injuries were inflicted by legal body checks.
Another 31 percent were the result of accidental contact, with only 17 percent as a result of illegal hits and 8 percent from fighting.
Certainly, no one wants to see body-checking removed from pro hockey. Physical play is part of what makes the game attractive to sports fans.
Still, the numbers suggest simply imposing stiffer discipline alone won't completely eliminate the incidents of concussion injuries.
That doesn't mean the league shouldn't crack down on dangerous head shots, but it does mean further examination of other factors, including player equipment and arena safety, is necessary.
Even then, concussion injuries won't be fully eradicated from the game. Hockey remains a contact sport and the potential for injury, including concussions, is always there.
The game, especially at the pro level, can be and should be made safer.
Don't expect most of the changes to occur overnight, as any recommendations from the general managers and the four-member panel will have to go before the Board of Governors in June for approval.
Still, it's encouraging they're doing something, rather than turn a blind eye, to the issue of concussions and player safety. Let's just hope there won't be any further injuries like Pacioretty's — or worse — between now and then.
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