NHL Taking It Slow: Commentary

As the general managers meet in Florida for the last day, what has come from the meeting the past two has been “tightening of the ship.”  Rather than take sweeping changes and possibly modifying the game to ends that make the owners and their proxy, general managers, uneasy the standards/statements made thus far have at least let us know they are fully aware.  And it has shown that money or fear of losing money drives the ship.

On Monday the league announced that the protocol for a player showing concussion signs will be removed from the bench for a thorough evaluation by a doctor.  I opined that this was a good first step, what I didn’t mention was that I didn’t like how the connotation from the media and even the league that the athletic trainer may be at fault.  Taking the player from the bench is a “no-brainer”; the instinct to hop the boards when your shift is called far outweighs the honest answers a player may be inclined to give to the athletic trainer behind the bench.  Also, removing the player from outside influences, say peers and coaches, makes this move both warranted and good “window dressing.”  This particular move does nothing for the player that will give dishonest answers in an effort to return to the game, the hopes are that using the SCAT2 model, to the ‘T’, will identify more concussions.  Is it a move in the right direction?  Yes!  Just remember before others go on a rampage saying the athletic trainer would not be qualified to do this; the SCAT2 was developed by and for athletic trainers to use, on a hockey bench there is neither the time or space to do such an evaluation.  Part of the umbrage I take as well is the influences of the coaches, peers and players themselves when the injured is still on the bench.  The athletic trainer has never been viewed as an overriding authority on the bench/sidelines in professional sports, which is a shame because that is their profession and that is what they are trained to do.

On Tuesday, there was no move by the league to ban hits to the head, like the IIHF and OHL have done.  Rather the league will enforce the boarding and charging penalties with greater conviction.  Again, this is not a drastic move, but one that is sorely needed (why they were not enforcing the rules to begin with is unclear).

  • 41.1 Boarding – A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.
  • 42.1 Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A “charge” may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

As the skaters have gotten stronger the “innocent” hits and cross-checks have resulted in players flying across the ice; moreover hits like this that have been allowed, with the lax enforcement of the rules, have created forces to the body that have translated into concussive episodes.  Remember that you do not have to be hit in the head to sustain a concussion, and the violent nature of some of these hits are doing just that (some of the 44% of the “clean hits” as defined by the NHL).  So now the league is placing the impetus on the referees to determine how “bad” the hit was, leading to the flip slide, diving.  It is fine balance the league is trying to maintain, however it is a good start.

Granted the league has vowed to take a deeper look into the banning of head shots in the off-season;

Instead, the feasibility of broadening the rule will be examined by a special committee headed by the league vice president Brendan Shanahan — who promptly shot down the idea of a full ban with these words:

I don’t think it’s realistic. Defenders defend standing up, and forwards attack bent over. There are other things that we can do first.

Was relegating the question of a full ban on head shots to a committee headed by a man who has already voiced his opposition to the idea little more than a nod to the estimated six general managers who favor such a ban? Or was it a sign that the notion of a full I.I.H.F./O.H.L.-style ban on head contact is gaining traction — slowly and year by year, perhaps, but gaining nonetheless — among the league’s rule makers?

Is this movement too slow?  I understand the need to be less reactionary, but at the same time being proactive will show that the league is committed to the safety of the players.  If the league says that only 14% of concussions this year have been legal hits to the head than banning that would conceivably reduce the numbers by 11, or a significant percentage of FOURTEEN PERCENT.

Taking head shots out of the game will not destroy the fabric of the game, nor bring in less money, perhaps it will open the ice up even more.  Doesn’t the league want more interest and high paced action, something that could translate better on the TV sets of America?

The moves have been well justified to this point, and are needed, so the NHL and Gary Bettman deserve some credit.  But, remember that the changes were to the outward appearance of this institution, “window dressing”, they have yet to address the foundation.  That foundation is respect; respect of the game, and respect of the players.  Had Chara had some respect for Pacioretty last week, perhaps plating him in the stanchion, would have never occurred.

It will be interesting to see what comes from Florida today.

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