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NHL refocuses on concussions

In a perfect world, Lightning left wing Simon Gagne would play in a league that did not allow hits to the head.

No exceptions.

If a player hit another in the head, accidentally or on purpose, it would be a penalty. It is the perspective of a player who has dealt with multiple concussions.

"You want to go out there and play the game," Gagne said, "and be safe about your life."

Concussions are again a hot topic in the NHL.

They are not substantially up. The New York Times reported that as of Jan. 20, 43 concussions has been reported since the preseason's start, a pace slightly ahead of last season's 75. The increase, commissioner Gary Bettman said during last month's All-Star weekend, is because of "accidental and inadvertent" collisions and fighting.

But with the league's biggest star, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, not expected back until March because of a concussion diagnosed after he sustained two hits to the head in five days last month, pressure has increased for the league to at least talk about how to better protect its players.

That discussion will happen at next month's general managers meeting in Boca Raton.

Suggestions range from strengthening Rule 48, which penalizes blindside and lateral hits to the head, to banning all head shots, to further softening elbow and shoulder pads.

But some, such as Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, worry about rules changes diminishing the game's trademark physicality.

"And some," Penguins GM Ray Shero said, "have come out and said it wouldn't be that much of a big deal if it wasn't Sidney. Well, take advantage of it. We always say, until something happens to a star player, the league won't look seriously at it. Well, something happened to a star player. If that's the excuse we have to use, I'm all for it."

"The good thing is they're talking about it," Gagne said. "They're going to find something. What's it going to be? I don't know."

• • •

Any discussion about concussions in the NHL starts here: "Guys are bigger, faster," Lightning defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron said. "Maybe we need a bigger rink. It's almost like racing F1 (cars) on a go-cart track."

"Unless you play the game, it's hard to understand how fast it is," Blues scout and former Lightning player Rob DiMaio said. "It's easy to watch from (the press box) and say, 'Why didn't that guy stop?' But it happens so fast, guys can't stop sometimes."

That is why DiMaio, whose career ended because of a concussion sustained in a September 2006 preseason game from an elbow thrown by Guillaume Latendresse, would not ban all hits to the head: "Guys shouldn't be penalized for an accident."

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman agreed: "Deliberate blows to the head are different than body checks. I don't think you can penalize every time a guy gets hit in the head. Sometimes, a guy isn't targeting the head. This isn't easy. We're not going to be able to prevent every concussion."

That is why much of the discussion next month likely will be about strengthening Rule 48, enacted last season after Florida's David Booth and Boston's Marc Savard were concussed by blindside hits to the head from Philadelphia's Mike Richards and Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, respectively.

Neither Richards nor Cooke was suspended because the hits were legal at the time. Cooke was not even penalized. Under Rule 48, he would have been.

Bettman said at All-Star weekend that since the rule was enacted in March, "we've seen a decrease in concussions and man-games lost resulting from blindside hits to the head."

Jason Pominville said that is no reason not to add harsher penalties. The Sabres right wing missed about a month this season because of a concussion from a hit to the head by Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who was suspended for two games.

"Players don't want to get suspended. They don't want to get fined," Pominville said. "You fine someone or suspend someone, it catches everybody's attention."

• • •

Any rules change must be approved by the players association, and not all see eye to eye.

Shero, the Penguins' GM, said he polled his players last season about Richards' hit on Booth: "I said, 'Who thinks that was a good hit?' Half the guys said it was a good hit; (Booth) should keep his head up. The other guys were saying, 'Are you kidding me? (Richards) should be suspended.' "

Gagne, who said he was concussed twice in the 2007-08 season by hits to the head, understands the push-back.

"You still want hockey to be a physical sport, and I agree," he said. "But guys are so big and so fast, and with the rule change of no holding, guys are coming at full speed. If you get hit with a shoulder to the head, good luck for your health. Until you get this injury and struggle with it, you definitely won't understand."

"Gags makes a good point," teammate Steven Stamkos said. "You respect them for going through that."

Still, count Stamkos among those who believe the onus is not on the league but on the players to "be more responsible," especially by avoiding vulnerable positions in which they can be hit.

And he agreed with Versus television analyst and former NHL defenseman Brian Eng­blom, who said, "What we need to eliminate is that hunting mentality. Hitting is one thing, but hunting means you're looking for victims. You're looking to go after someone and punish them."

Can it be left to the players?

"I think that's gone from the game now," DiMaio said. "You have players whose job it is to be physical, and whenever they have an opportunity to finish a guy and finish a guy hard, they're going to. If a guy doesn't finish his hit and he gets to the bench, he's going to hear about it."

"It's like when you ask the people in society to act with respect," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "You're going to get some who do and some who don't. So if you leave it up to players, it will be like leaving it up to society without policemen and jails."

NHL refocuses on concussions 02/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 7:51am]
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