BOCA RATON, Fla. - The NHL says the number of concussions suffered by players this season is on par with the amount that occurred a year ago.
That's viewed as a positive development by the league's player safety department, particularly with all of the focus on those types of injuries and the belief teams and players are doing a better job of identifying them.
"What I can say is we're continually looking at all ways to bring this number down," Kris King, the NHL's vice-president of hockey operations, said Monday. "The fact that it stabilized after a huge increase from two years ago is a positive I think."
King was part of a presentation delivered by league executives to open the GM meetings. Disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan went through video covering various types of incidents — kneeing, hipchecks, slew foots and goaltender interference — while King brought everyone up to speed on concussions.
As a policy, the league doesn't release the exact number of head injuries suffered by its players.
However, King noted there was a major increase in the number of concussions from the 2009-10 season to the 2010-11 campaign.
"There are doctors that think the number being as high as it is is a good thing because we're actually diagnosing brain injuries correctly," he said. "At the same time, we'd love to see our numbers coming down because then the work we've put into this with the concussion working group and the protocol and the equipment changes and the rule changes, we'd like to think that was helping keep our players healthy and back on the ice longer."
The GMs introduced rule 48 outlawing blindside hits to the head in 2010 before refining the wording around that rule and one covering boarding at last year's meeting.
When those rules were established, the managers were concerned the amount of hitting in the game would decrease. However, the league says the average of 45 hits per game has remained stable despite a slow start to this year.
One statistic that has increased is the total amount of man games lost to concussions. King believes that's a sign teams are treating the injury seriously.
"I think teams are looking at players that are hurt and taking a little bit more time to make sure that the player is feeling healthy enough to come back," he said. "I think everybody's starting to understand a little bit better, as are we, what concussions really are."
Shanahan was given a mandate to hand out stricter punishment when he took over the disciplinary role prior to the season. He's seen plenty of evidence players are responding to that and making smarter choices on the ice.
The GMs were shown video of a number of instances from this season where players pulled away from a potentially dangerous hit — including one from Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton against Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban.
It's been an encouraging development.
"I don't feel that we are in the punishment business, I feel we are in the changing player behaviour business," said Shanahan. "And you do that by getting someone's attention.
"For some players, it's a one-game suspension the regular season, with others it's a 12-game suspension in the regular season."