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Day 2 GMs: Too many legal hits lead to concussions

by Shawn P. Roarke
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Armed with the empirical data on concussions provided by the NHL's Hockey Operations department Monday, the NHL's 30 general managers spent close to five hours Tuesday trying to shape a comprehensive policy to curb the number of concussions in the game.

The cornerstone of that policy, from comments made by virtually everyone involved in the process, will involve a more stringent enforcement of the boarding and charging penalties in the current rulebook.

"Let me summarize the overwhelming view of the group in terms of what we are going to be focused on," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said after Tuesday's session. "There seems to be, particularly in light of the statistics as to how and where concussions are caused, that boarding and charging is a focus of attention for us, particularly in terms of seeking stricter enforcement, more aggressive enforcement.

"In that regard, we are going to be looking to articulate a standard that is consistent with being stricter and more aggressive in terms of the enforcement standard that the players and officials can be more comfortable with and will take out some of the acts that aren't being called as boarding and charging and will make them penalties and perhaps beyond."

The Hockey Operations department determined in its study of concussions during the 2010-11 season that 44 percent of concussions were caused by legal hits, a number that is not really palatable for anyone involved in the game.

"I think this whole thing of reviewing safety issues, boarding and charging -- when you read the actual rules -- covers much of what we are talking about today. So it is up to us to articulate the standard verbally and visually to demonstrate to players, media and fans and referees what really that new standard is." -- Brendan Shanahan

The managers believe an emphasis on enforcing the existing standards when it comes to boarding and charging significantly can reduce that total.

"The sense was there were a number of incidents of boarding and charging that, while legal under the current rules, may be the type of hits we can take out of the game, keep the fundamental physicality of the game and reduce injuries,'' Bettman said.

NHL Vice President of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan was a player just a few seasons ago and played under the current thresholds for boarding and charging. He believes the rules, as they stand, should be a significant deterrent if applied correctly and consistently.

"I think this whole thing of reviewing safety issues, boarding and charging -- when you read the actual rules -- covers much of what we are talking about today," he said. "So it is up to us to articulate the standard verbally and visually to demonstrate to players, media and fans and referees what really that new standard is."

The group will make just such a recommendation by the time the three days of meetings here concludes Wednesday. Once it is made it will begin its journey through the refinement process -- going before the blue-ribbon panel of recently retired players that was announced Monday and then on to the Competition Committee before, hopefully, being presented to the Board of Governors this June for ratification.

Shanahan, NHL Hockey Operations Manager Rob Blake, Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk and Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman are the panel of ex-players that will do the heavy lifting on this issue.

But the GMs did not stop there.

According to Bettman, there is an appetite among the group to levy longer suspensions for head hits, as well as a notion to more stringently punish repeat offenders under the League's current disciplinary process.

"I think we are targeting, through supplementary discipline, that if a guy does target the head and it's not an otherwise legal check, now that guy is probably going to get bounced," said Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The GMs also proposed that more attention should be placed on players that deliver hits to the head to vulnerable opponents, regardless of the legality of such a hit.

The GMs, however, did not display a willingness to adopt a complete ban on hits to the head, something that was proposed by more than one GM.

"There was no support for that in our group," Burke said. "I don't think a blanket ban on a body check that is otherwise legal that results in contact with the head -- there's no support for that."

The concern for most of the general managers is that hitting is such an integral part of the sport at the NHL level that the adoption of such an all-inclusive rule would have a chilling effect on the very physical nature that makes the NHL game so unique.

"By the time the season is over there will be 55,000 hits, and a small percentage are resulting in concussions," Bettman said. "We want to eliminate concussions, but the view is if we can define a rule that makes sense and doesn't cause other problems in the game, we're going to try and do that."

Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero was one of the advocates for a more-encompassing head-hit rule. While he did not accomplish that goal, he remains pleased with the work his peers have done over the past 48 hours and looks forward to the formal recommendations that should be delivered after Wednesday's final session of the meetings.

"Well, we talked about it a lot," Shero said, talking specifically about the three breakout groups that looked at the subject in smaller groups before reporting back to the main body. "Just in the breakout groups that we had, every group reported back, and yeah, we looked at so many different hits.

"All hits, as we know, are not the same. All hits are different. But outside of a blanket policy, if we can protect a vulnerable player, if we can clean up some of these things like charging that we talked about, I think it's a real step in the right direction. So I'm looking forward to (Wednesday) as well, and seeing where this will go to see what we can get in for next year to enforce these things more aggressively and make it a safer work environment."
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