Not any more

Bettman walking fine line on head hits

In Canada on October 5, 2010 at 17:47

First, a brief confession. I like Gary Bettman (stop the booing please until I explain). For a lot of reasons, some justified, some not, the NHL commissioner has become the lightning rod for all that ails the game in truest Harry Truman sense of the term. The buck stops at Bettman’s door. So for all the gains that the league has made in the five years since the dawn of the “new” NHL, any problems that remain – or have developed as a result of the changes made in the post lockout era – land on Bettman’s doorstep.

Last year, the primary issue that caught the public’s attention was hits to the head – and the increasing number of NHL players, from the Florida Panthers’ David Booth to the Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard who suffered serious head injuries in what had previously been a perfectly legal play. Well that had to change – and despite the dinosaur thinking of a handful of GMs, it did. Concussion research from multiple sources pointed out the dangers, short and long term, of repeated blows to the head. Last March, the league implemented a rule change on the fly that made a player guilty of a blindside hit to the head subject to supplementary discipline. It put the onus on the player delivering the hit to pull up if an opponent was in a vulnerable position – as opposed to what they had before, where a defenseless player was supposed to feel contact coming and protect himself. How? Who knows? It never made sense.

Still, this was a proactive rule change – and without getting input from the competition committee of the players’ association, supplemental discipline was about as far as the league thought they could go on the matter at the time.

In June, however, the rule was amended further so that now, a blindside hit to the head will result in a major penalty and game misconduct and still remain subject to supplementary discipline if it is deemed egregious by the NHL’s hockey operations staff.

That shift – plus a few more minor tweaks to the size of goaltending equipment – mark the biggest off-season rule changes heading into the 2010-11 NHL season.

So getting back to Bettman. He is the de facto CEO of the business; and no matter what else you might think of him, he knows about business – and that it is bad business to lose players of Savard’s and Booth’s calibre for extended periods.

Booth, by the way, looks healthy and recovered, while Savard is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms. So, for that matter, are the Flyers’ Ian Laperriere and the Colorado Avalanche’s Peter Mueller, who suffered concussions last year and had setbacks earlier in camp. Laperriere, whose injury came when he blocked a shot in the face, went so far as to say that he lied to himself last year when he figured he could return to Philadelphia’s line-up in the middle of the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks. He wasn’t ready and deep down knew he wasn’t ready, but he wanted to play so badly that he professed that he was feeling OK.

That will be one of the more difficult parts of solving the concussion/head injury issue going forward – educating the players so that if they are having issues, there is no stigma attached to letting the doctors know about it. Again, a few Neanderthal types in NHL managerial circles don’t always want to hear about injuries or head aches at crunch time, but hopefully that way of thinking will soon go the way of the dodo.

Bettman was remarking Tuesday about the fine line that needs to be walked here. Hockey is a contact sport; the bruising physical nature of the game is part of the attraction (and for some spectators, the most important part).

The goal is to preserve the innate nature of the game, at the same time as acknowledging that no matter how safe you try to make it, injuries will occur in any contact sport. The idea is to reduce the overall number of concussions so that when they do occur, they are the exceptions, not the rule. Bettman was preaching all that on a conference call with reporters – that this change was a significant step forward in terms of trying to find that balance between safety and physical play; and while there hasn’t been a ton of hockey played since the rule change occurred back in March, the perception is that the game is safer than it was at this time a year ago.

I hope – for his sake and for all the players playing the game at every level – that he’s proven right.

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