BOCA RATON, Fla. -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted Monday the League is taking the appropriate steps to insure the safety of its players and that concussions do not represent an epidemic, despite highly publicized incidents in the past three months.
Bettman made his remarks at the end of the first of three days of meetings among NHL general managers, who have gathered at the Boca Beach Resort to discuss the state of the game in general, and more specifically the issues of head hits and concussions.
That work, according to Bettman, began in earnest during Monday's session. After a comprehensive report from NHL Hockey Operations, the general managers broke into three smaller groups to brainstorm ideas to make the game safer.
"The fact is we spent most of the morning going through an extensive presentation on concussions in the game," Bettman said. "If there is one thing that is clear, there is no one single thing causing concussions. In fact, the trend as to why concussions happen is different than what a lot of people are suggesting or speculating."
Recent concussions suffered by Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Boston's Marc Savard and Montreal's Max Pacioretty have intensified the discussion about dangerous play resulting in the prevalence of head hits and concussions in the game.
However, according to data compiled and studied by the NHL's Hockey Operations department and delivered to the general managers, there is not empirical data to back up any suggestion that concussions and resulting lost man-games are on the rise due to illegal hits to the head.
In fact, the majority of the concussions in the 2010-11 season to date have come from legal hits or accidental contact. Forty-four percent of the concussions this season have been the result of legal hits to the head or body, while another 26 percent have come when players were struck accidentally, either colliding with another player, being struck by the puck or tripping or falling and making head contact with the ice surface or the boards.
Another 17 percent of the concussions were the result of either illegal hits to the head or illegal body checks. Also, eight percent of the concussions were caused by fighting. Five percent of the concussions were not defined because video of the incidents does not exist.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there only was one blindside hit this season that has resulted in a concussion, down from four at the same point of the 2009-10 season. Rule 48, which renders illegal any lateral or blindside hit where the head is targeted and/or becomes the principle point of contact, was founded at last year's meetings. Both Bettman and the League's GMs suggested Monday that Rule 48 has had a chilling effect on the predatory hits it was meant to address.
"This notion that the players have no respect for each other and the players are going around hitting each other in the head on a regular basis and that is what is causing concern just isn't accurate," Bettman said.
Bettman did his part to advance the discussion by announcing a five-point plan aimed at player safety (see box on this page).
A more stringent concussion protocol headlines Bettman's plan.
When it is implemented -- as soon as the League explains the parameters to the team physicians and trainers that will be administering it -- players no longer will be allowed to be evaluated by the trainer on the bench after showing signs of a possible concussion.
Now, the player in question will have to be moved to a quiet place and be evaluated by a team physician before he can return to action.
Bettman said this is just the latest step in a vigilant campaign by the sport to address concussions, a campaign that started in 1997.
"We are the first league that has had a protocol for the diagnosis and return-to-play decisions," Bettman said. "We are the first sports league to do baseline testing with respect to concussions and this is just another in a series of steps."
Other parts of the five-point plan include a thorough examination of ways to modify player equipment to make it safer, including the removal of any seamless glass surrounding all NHL rinks, and a proposal that would hold teams, and perhaps even coaches, responsible for the behavior of repeat offenders in the disciplinary process.
Bettman also announced a committee to study these player-safety issues and report back to the bigger group. The committee consists of former players Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Yzerman. Shanahan and Blake are now senior members of the League, while Yzerman (Tampa Bay) and Nieuwendyk (Dallas) are team general managers. All played the game under the rules instituted coming out of the 2005 work stoppage.
National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Don Fehr made the following statement regarding the initiatives:
"The NHLPA is pleased that we have reached an agreement with the NHL regarding clarification of the Concussion Evaluation and Management Protocol. We are confident that the protocol will be properly implemented across the NHL by each of its member clubs. This is a significant step to improve player safety, and concussion protocol is an area where we will continue to work with the League, through the joint NHL/NHLPA Concussion Working Group.
"We are also pleased that the NHL has agreed to replace the seamless tempered glass with plexiglass systems. During discussions with the NHL last year, the NHLPA agreed to approve new soft cap shoulder pads beginning with the 2010-11 season, provided that the NHL agreed to review boards and glass in each of the 30 NHL rinks, in particular, those rinks where seamless glass is currently in place, an area of NHLPA membership concern. Following the boards and glass review, the NHL agreed that the six NHL arenas that have seamless tempered glass would be required to be replaced with a safer plexiglass system by the start of the 2011-12 season. This is a positive development, and the League and the NHLPA will continue to monitor all boards and glass to determine if further changes are required.
"In regards to the other announcements coming out of the GM meetings today, we welcome these steps and look forward to discussing these and other issues with the NHL to provide a safer working environment for the Players."
Bettman understands that concussions are a hot-button topic among the League's fans.
"The statistics I've given you are really to tell you there is no magic bullet in dealing with this," Bettman said. "I know it is an emotional, intense subject -- especially for our fans. We understand it, we get it; but dealing with this issue is not something you can just do whimsically or emotionally. You really have to understand what is going on. I think this morning's session gave the managers an excellent sense of exactly how to focus on these issues."
It remains to be seen what recommendations will come out of these meetings, but it is clear player safety is at the forefront of what will happen here during the next 48 hours before the GMs return to their teams Wednesday afternoon.
"These deliberations and discussions will continue tomorrow," Bettman said. "We hope to be in position to have some recommendations or at least some sense of how the managers want to continue to approach this and whether or not they think any rule changes would be appropriate from our standpoint."