Monday, March 14, 2011

The Five Points

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.


moeman said...

Great review of the issue.

Jay in PA said...

Great analysis, JT. I had a longer response, but my browser ate it, so here's the short version: Based on comments by Colin Campbell this morning that the recent publicity over violence in hockey is welcome because it is getting attention for the game, and on Bettman's analysis of concussions revealing that 44% of them are the result of legal hits (you know, like Chara's), I believe that the NHL sees dangerous violence as key to the sport's appeal and wants to protect that part of the game as much as possible.

From this perspective, losing its top players (with Crosby at the head of the pack and Pacioretty not even a blip on the radar) is simply an acceptable cost of this strategy. If this were not the case, the NHL's reaction to losing Crosby (not to mention Brad Richards, Marc Savard, and others) would be swift, comprehensive, and expressed with conviction. Instead, we are seeing the opposite of all of these adjectives--the NHL is acting slowly, has tried to reduce the discussion to head shots (which are just one type of dangerous play that results in concussions), dissembled mightily on the Chara hit, and generally acted as though it's all just part of the game and no big deal.

The more that comes out of this whole topic as it unfolds, the more I recognize that the NHL brass is out of touch with the hockey that I want to see. I've watched the game and loved the Canadiens all my life, but there's more to life than this. I can't enjoy a game whose leaders believe that turning athletes into invalids is an acceptable part of the sport. And the NHL is doing nothing to convince me otherwise.

DB said...

The five-point plan disappoints me for a couple of reasons.

The first being that it is reactionary and piecemeal. Someone has to break their neck on a stanchion before any action is taken to inspect rinks for safety. Concussions and rink safety are now hot-topics, as they should be, so they get all the attention. Well what about high-ankle sprains, ice quality and knee injuries.

My second issue is that the concussion blue-ribbon panel is headed by 4 former players. I question whether they have the time or expertise to review and understand all the research being done on concussions. How will they be able to distinguish good research from bad?

What I would like to see is the NHL appoint a Chief Safety Officer. Someone with a background in a field like bio-medical engineering. Job requirements would include:

- oversee or review testing of equipment, nets, boards, glass, etc
- develop safety standards for equipment and rinks.
- inspect arenas for compliance with standards
- oversee the development of computer models (maybe adapt those used by auto companies in evaluating car safety) to simulate hockey collisions and measure the forces involved.
- determine if any commonly held believes (such as the current pads contribute to concussions, skate boots contribute to high-ankle sprains, seamless glass causes more injuries) are true and if so to what extent. This is required because, while these believes seem logical, some commonly held believes are not true and there is no point wasting time and money on something that is not a problem. For example, a number of people believe cars from the 50s are safer than today's cars because the steel was thicker. This video destroys that myth:
- investigate and evaluate the causes of all major injuries including identifying any contributing factors, For example, when Markov was injured factors such as did he return to soon, ruts in the ice, the quality of the knee brace would all be considered.
- oversee the review of team's medical records to ensure players are not being rushed back and that NHL protocols were followed.
- assess fines against teams that violate standards.
- liaise with researchers, other leagues (pro and amateur), and the media
- develop a comprehensive database of injuries and causes.
- review games and identify player habits that increase and decrease the risk of injury.
- provide reqular updates to teams on findings
- determine which work should be done by the NHL and which work should be done by outside experts.

Having a Chief Safety Officer would mean that the NHL takes safety seriously and wants it to be part of its culture. No more it was a hockey play so there was nothing we could do.

It also would give the NHL a much needed image boost.

Anonymous said...

The smaller elbow and shoulder pads is something that Don Cherry has been advocating for 15 years. He has always been of the opinion that the equipment was becoming dangerous and instead of protecting players it was actually making them more vulnerable. So good on the league for finally listening to him.

Perron and Crosby are right that regardless of intent any hit to the head should be penalized severely. Too often we see players hitting harder than necessary and trying to demolish opponents rather than separate them from the puck. Boarding is a penalty and so is roughing and its time to bring them back into the game. We see charges almost every night not being called unless the player leaves his feet. That is a pretty limited interpretation of that rule and that has to change.

Finally, any player who knocks another player unconscious from a hit should be suspended five games minimum, without pay. Open ice or into the boards regardless of intent, five games...It is not necessary to hit so hard that a player is rendered unconscious on the ice. Within 20 games of applying the rule we would see a drastic reduction in overly violent incidents.

No player would want to be suspended and not paid for 5 games so it is my contention that they would stop running at opponents and would instead take care to NOT injure the other player. Most legal body checks do not result in injury. There would be no reason for regular physical play to decline. Players would adapt and the game would be safer for all.

Chara would have to be a lot more careful if he knew that accidentally hurting another player could cost him money.


punkster said...

Nickle and dime indeed. The greatest brain trauma problem with the league is Bettman and his executive. These 5 steps are not enough.

Anonymous said...

I say scratch the name "Bettman" from your rally sign tonight, Montreal! And in it's place add "Campbell". He didn't sign a five- year contract and is really the one who needs to go (nepotism and favoritism).

Let's do it!

Paul B. said...

"Only" 17% of the concussions are the results of illegal hits.

What else do you expect when the Richards/Booth, Cooke/Savard, Apeman/Pacioretty and dozens of others hits, are considered "legal" ?

Anonymous said...

I hope you are right JT. I want you to be right.

But in a league where accidentally shooting the puck over the glass can get you an extra two in overtime during the deciding game of the (pick a)championship because "rulz is rulz" I am cautious.

To me I read a trot out the big guns (big names with some creds) to shift the focus. I read "blame the medical staff" rather than the hit. Blame the equipment rather than the hyped up player.

Guys like Cooke get away with stuff because the teams and the league tolerate it. Additionally spearing out a player's eye or spleen is as worthy of consideration as a head hit.

I'll wait and see but I think the real Bettman and the real leaque revealed themselves by flipping off the first major sponsor to ask "What is going on?" This PR effort is simply to get those stupid Canadians to settle down and let the NHL get back to doing what it does best, lose money and fan interest.

Finally to use Mr. Bettman's brilliant mindset more than 99% of all deaths involve cardiac arrest not brain trauma, depending on where you start looking. (And the law won't let you look unless the heart has stopped.)

Anonymous said...

Summa Idioticus

Question 1: What is the nature of the NHL Commissioner?

Article 1: Whether Bettman is an idiot.

Objection 1: "It would seem that Bettman is not an idiot. For idiocy is as idiocy does, and Bettman does no idiotic things."

Objection 2: "Further, what is noblest and best does not corrupt. Bettman is commissioner, and this is the noblest and best position."

On the contrary, the website strongly suggests Bettman is an idiot.

I answer that, Idiocy is said in many ways. First, as to the definition, which we may state as "an utterly foolish or senseless person". Second, as to the etymology, which we may state as "pertaining to the self-same; privacy." Now, as to the first way, it is manifest that Bettman is an idiot because of his foolishness and senselessness. It is true that he may not be a 'person', but this discussion will be reserved for another article. As to the second way, it is manifest that Bettman's actions come from his own private sense of right and wrong, which is private not in the sense of being incorrigibly inaccessible or a-critical, but in the sense of proceeding without notice of the thoughts and opinions of others external to oneself. And, indeed, it is from this second sense of 'idiot' that we may predictate of Bettman the first sense.

Reply to Objection 1: Bettman does idiot things, as is clear from the body of the article.

Reply to Objection 2: Commissioner is noblest and best relatively, but not absolutely, which latter is Common Sense and Law. Bettman is not above Common Sense and Law, and so his manifest idiocy is not ruled out by his position of relative power.