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Stricter rules on head hits believed to be paying off

by Shawn P. Roarke
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The NHL's 30 general managers believe a stabilization in the number of players suffering concussions after the institution last year of stiffer rules governing hits to the head is a positive step in the continuing effort to limit concussions in the game.

"Any time that number (of concussions) is higher than one, it is too many, so we will continue to work on it," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said after the first of three days of GM meetings at the Boca Raton Beach Club adjourned.

Earlier in the day, the general managers were briefed on the concussion numbers for the 2011-12 season, which are similar to the numbers from the previous season, according to Kris King, vice president of Hockey Operations.


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"We are the same this year as last year," King said, referencing the number of concussions incurred during the 2011-12 season. "The increase that happened last year (in relation to the 2009-10 season), did not happen this year. It has leveled out."

King, admitted, however, that the amount of man games lost to concussions has risen in the 2011-12 season. King and several GMs, however, pointed to the long-term absence of several players -- Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Philadelphia's Chris Pronger were cited as prime examples -- as a primary reason for the rise in man-game numbers.

This news comes almost a year to the day after the GMs began the process to stiffen Rule 48, which limits the scenarios under which hits to the head can be deemed legal. Those alterations were just the latest in a suite of rules and other initiatives beginning in 1997 to address the concussion issue.

The attempts to address concussions have intensified in the past few years as more has become known about the issue.

In January of 2010, the NHL instituted a concussion protocol that outlined how teams dealt with players who suffered concussions. The next March, that protocol was stiffened, including a provision that a player suspected of suffering a concussion must be removed from play and evaluated by a medical professional in a quiet place.

In March of 2010, the League instituted Rule 48, which banned certain hits to the head. This past March, as mentioned, Rule 48 was made much stricter, further narrowing the scope of head hits that are deemed legal.

The general managers insist they are happy with the results, even if the number of concussions has not been lowered in an appreciable manner.

"It's working," Chicago GM Stan Bowman said. "Well, people will say, 'Why aren't concussions down?' Well, there are a couple of factors. One, we probably had a lot of underreporting in the past. So, if you try to compare now to six years ago, you are never going to get anywhere with that type of comparison. You have to look at last year, and I think we have stabilized."

Toronto GM Brian Burke also argues that the number of concussions can be seen as progress, rather than the cause for concern that is often cited as the other side of the argument.

"I think if you look at the number of concussions and the man-games lost, you (can) say it's an epidemic, but I don't believe that," Burke said. "I think we are diagnosing (concussions) properly and treating the injured players properly, and that has produced the spike in man-games lost.

"I don't see an epidemic when I watch the game. I don't sense a problem. It's something that we are ahead of in all sports, and it is something we continue to stay on top of."

For now, the GMs plan to monitor their initiatives and the results. A larger sample size -- across at least three seasons, says Rutherford -- will give them a better idea if more needs to be done on the concussion front.

For now, though, most believe the game is where it needs to be in order to meet the threat posed by head injuries. Eliminate the illegal hits to the head -- which is the impetus behind the rule changes of the past year -- and you will limit the number of concussions.

But concussions won't be eradicated in a game that demands contact and features a vulcanized rubber disc travelling at upwards of 90 miles per hour on a regular basis. Accidents, unfortunately, are a byproduct of the sport.

"We watched a video of every concussion this year, and it's a hard game," Detroit GM Ken Holland said. "There are big, strong guys, and they are playing hard. They're banging one another. I don't think there is one reason why there are concussions -- it's intense, it's physical, it's hard. You are going to have injuries."

With that said, the GMs believe the players will continue to adapt to the new rules -- just as they did to the anti-obstruction package instituted several years ago -- and that will lead to a reduction in head injuries in the coming months.

"We have the best players in the world, and whatever rules you implement, they are going to adjust," Holland said. "I think the players are adjusting."
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