I, like you, have been waiting with great interest to see what kind of concussion solution would come out of the NHL general managers meetings in Florida. I confess, the wait has not been without trepidation. After all, this is a league that took eleven years to mandate the wearing of helmets after Bill Masterton's death from a blow to the head.
So, Gary Bettman's five-point plan to reduce concussions is a positive, if flawed, step in the right direction. The most important of the five points is that there will be equipment modifications. Small, softer shoulder and elbow pads will certainly help. Yet, there will probably be resistance to that from players and teams who think the armour players wear prevents more injuries than it causes.
It's also good that a player who takes a hit to the head will now be removed to a quiet area and assessed by a doctor. The on-bench trainer-administered "count backward by twos" test won't be good enough anymore. That's positive, if it works, because there are certainly times when a player thinks he's fine when he's driven by adrenaline and the presence of his peers, but who'll recognize something's wrong when he's removed from those stimuli. The only flaw with this plan is that it relies on either the player to admit to "weakness" or the coach or trainer to recognize it and force the player off. There's no guarantee either of those things will happen if a team really needs a player or a guy really wants to stay in the game.
Then there's the plan for the league to impose sanctions on repeat offenders and repeat offending teams. This is where things get sticky. Zdeno Chara, for example, has no suspensions for head shots. He, without question, delivered a crushing one to Max Pacioretty. So, even though everyone in the world knows he broke a guy's neck with a very iffy hit, he has no record and therefore no escalating penalty for him or the Bruins. This rule relies on the effectiveness of the NHL's disciplinarian, Colin Campbell. We know there's a conflict of interest with him in that position, and we know his record of inconsistency.
It will help, too, to have the seamless glass replaced from rinks, including the Bell Centre, that still have it. And hopefully, the NHL's new safety committee will eliminate the stupid stanchion Pacioretty hit, as well as the overly-large camera holes that nearly removed Darryl Boyce's nose.
A committee of ex-players to examine other ways to reduce concussions is good, as long as they're not resistant to change. The risk in bringing in guys who played a different, pre-lockout game for most of their careers is that they fall into the "back in my day" trap. You know what I mean. "Back in my day, we learned not to turn our backs to hits." Or "Back in my day, we didn't have the instigator rule, so we could police ourselves." Those kinds of returns to the "good old days" aren't what's required here.
Sidney Crosby and David Perron both said today what's really needed. These good young players, both of whom have missed significant time with brain injuries, agree the NHL needs to punish ALL hits to the head. Crosby acknowledges that sometimes a head shot is unintentional, but Perron compares the situation with a high stick or delay-of-game penalty. If you hit someone with a high stick, whether you meant it or not, you're sitting for two or less. Ditto with the DOG penalty. So, every time a player gets his hands or elbow up high and strikes a player in the head, he should sit for five minutes, with a supplementary discipline review afterwards. That approach wouldn't have changed anything about the Chara hit, as the refs did see it as egregious and penalized it as such, while the league review let it go. It would, however, help change all those other hits you see, like the one on Crosby. Perhaps, if Steckel knew he'd get a five-minute major for hitting Crosby while his head was turned, he would have let up, or maybe hit him in the back instead.
The NHL really needs to take a no-tolerance approach to hitting people in the head. Bettman's five steps are five baby steps, but they're at least moving in the right direction. The better assessment in-game and the equipment changes will help. The big hole in the plan is the NHL's own will to punish offenders. It's in a position to get tough and start punishing offenders much more severely than it has been, but the appetite for change in a league driven by closed doors and tradition is not very great.
As Bob McKenzie said today, the NHL does things in nickels and dimes, and all that small change adds up to bigger changes. For those of us impatient to see some real direction on fixing the brain trauma problem in the NHL, it's maddening to see things moving so slowly. I guess it's something that at least they're moving.