The hit debate: How far will GMs go?

March, 14, 2011

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may have grabbed the early headlines here Monday, but the heavy lifting remains for the NHL general managers.

After watching clips of almost every one of the 80 or so concussions that have been sustained by players this season, the GMs must grapple with how to change a game that seems to have evolved beyond the current rules.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic to come out of Monday's concussion presentation was 44 percent of all concussions this season are the result of what are currently considered legal hits.

[+] EnlargeDarroll Powe
Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe NHL plans to introduce new in-game concussion protocols, where a player will have to leave the bench and go to an area where a doctor will assess him before he can return to action.

With the game headed for another record number of hits this season, it is clear that if the league is going to reduce the number of concussions its players sustain, it will have to change the rules.

Over the next two days, GMs will debate a number of such changes, including whether all blows to the head should be outlawed.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been without star center Sidney Crosby since Jan. 6 (concussion), support a total ban on hits to the head.

"My position is there should be no head hits. That's the position of the Penguins, that's mine, and I brought it up today in our group," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said. "Everybody has varying degrees of what is a head shot. You look at all these videos and there's a lot of different hits, but at the same time, there's over 50,000 hits in a year.

"If there's 10 or 20 questionable ones, is that going to take the fabric of our game away? We're still going to have 49,892 hits in our game and it's not going to change that much, I don't think."

Shero also suggested other existing rules may need to be either modified or called more regularly.

"We've got to look at charging as a call that's hardly ever made anymore," Shero said. "Maybe we have to redefine what charging is."

GMs will also consider at least a minor penalty for any contact with an opponent's head.

However, the breakdown on the concussion numbers revealed a complex problem that may not be solved even by adjusting the rules. For instance, the number of concussions that are the result of accidental events (concussions that result from players falling or running into teammates or opponents or being struck by the puck) has doubled from last season. The number of man games lost due to these concussions has also increased five-fold from a season ago.

"Those are going to be difficult to eliminate or reduce," Tampa GM Steve Yzerman noted. "Accidents happen in the game."

"A lot of what we saw weren't direct hits to the head. We saw body checks, a player's shoulder into a chest, a player falling down," Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher added. "There were a lot of incidents of pucks to the head or two players colliding from the same team. You've got to be a little bit careful in interpreting the data and make sure you're looking at what's truly happening out there."

As for illegal hits, they account for only 17 percent of all concussions and the percentage of man games lost to them is down significantly (41 percent to 17 percent) from a season ago.

The numbers suggest something different from the public's impression that the league is awash in guys taking each other's heads off at every opportunity.

"This notion that the players have no respect for each other and the players are going around hitting each other in the head on a regular basis and that is what is causing concern just isn't accurate," Bettman said.

The league also said there has been no increase in the number of concussions caused by head shots this season.

"We're not looking to fundamentally change our game. We're looking to make it safer," Bettman said. "And so, you can't do that in a haphazard manner, and you just don't run off and do it in the middle of a season. What you want to do is make sure that you're identifying the issue you're trying to address and that what you do in response will address that issue without fundamentally changing the game in ways that were never intended.

"We're not going to hurtle through this just to get it done," Bettman added. "The key is to get it right."

Over the next couple of days, GMs will wrestle with just what "right" means.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer



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