BOCA RATON, Fla. – The most important thing about the past three days of meetings was what the NHL’s general managers did not discuss: concussions.
Four years ago, three years ago and two years ago, the GMs were consumed by concussions. The NHL was in crisis. The league made changes but tabled other ideas.
The feeling now – at least for now – is that the league has gone far enough without going too far. The concussion trend appears to be reversing, but the game is still fast and physical. The GMs focused instead on items like overtime, goalie interference, video review and face-offs.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said concussions have declined to a “significant” and “healthy” degree this season. He would not give numbers. Hockey operations did not give the GMs numbers here, either, simply reporting to them Wednesday that both concussions and man games lost to concussions had declined.
We should not get too excited without hard data – not that we should get too excited even with hard data, knowing how quickly things can change. One bad stretch, one ugly incident, and the NHL could be in crisis mode again.
But NHL Players’ Association executive Mathieu Schneider said the union’s numbers showed a decline in concussions last season – if you take the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule and extrapolate for a normal, 82-game season – and my understanding is concussions have declined by a double-digit percentage compared to this point in 2011-12, the last full season.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan made only a routine report to the GMs Wednesday. He told them suspensions have declined this season – not because the standard has changed, but because there have been fewer incidents. He showed them the same videos available on NHL.com to remind them of standards entering the stretch run and the playoffs – what generally doesn’t rise to the level of supplemental discipline, what generally does. He focused on boarding. He received zero questions.
“I think the fact that it’s not the hot-button issue goes to the fact that the players are adjusting,” said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “They’re learning how to play the same game as competitive as ever and in a safer way.”
In March 2011, the GMs met shortly after the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara shoved the Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty into a stanchion – while the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby was out with a concussion he suffered in the Winter Classic. Concussions had jumped dramatically, and hockey ops presented the GMs with a study detailing the causes. The NHL introduced a new concussion protocol requiring players to be tested if they showed symptoms.
Entering the 2011-12 season, the NHL outlawed all targeted hits to the head, broadened the boarding rule and created the department of player safety. Shanahan took over supplemental discipline from longtime executive Colin Campbell and began giving video explanations of each suspension.
In March 2012, the GMs continued to discuss slowing down the game – ideas like reintroducing the red line to outlaw two-line passes, removing the trapezoid to allow goalies to play the puck in the corners, even allowing some obstruction again – but they didn’t want to undo rule changes made in 2005-06. Concussions were flat at the same time hits were flat, while man games lost to concussions were up. The thought was that the players were starting to adapt, while the treatment of concussions was more conservative.
Now? The GMs aren’t under the cloud of an incident like Cooke-Savard or Chara-Pacioretty. Crosby has returned from his concussion nightmare to lead the NHL in scoring again. The numbers, if you believe the league and the union, are going down.
“I think it’s definitely turned around,” Schneider said.
There are still bad hits. There are still concussions. The NHL goes through streaks of suspensions – a busy October followed by a quiet November, a busy December followed by a quiet January – but overall there has been progress. Shanahan has handed out eight suspensions for illegal checks to the head this season; he had handed out 13 by this point in 2011-12, the last full season.
“We’re seeing fewer and fewer of the blatant head shots,” Schneider said. “I think it’s been a combination of the rule changes, supplemental discipline and education.”
“There’s definitely been a change in behavior,” said Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. “It’s been hard. Things happen very quickly. But players don’t want to take penalties, and they don’t want to get suspended.”
“There’s always going to be an ebb and flow, because it’s a fast-paced game, it’s an emotional game,” Bowman said. “But I do see it. You just watch plays. Anecdotally, think back to things that happened five years ago. A guy was in a vulnerable spot, and you could have taken that one extra stride and given it to him. Now guys either don’t do it or they do it in a way that’s not dangerous. I think players are adjusting, which is what you want.”
The job is not done. Just because concussions have declined after skyrocketing doesn’t mean they have settled at an acceptable level. The GMs will continue reviewing the game and its rules. The department of player safety will continue enforcing the rules and educating people. The players need to continue to change their behavior.
The NHL and the NHLPA are still working on tweaking shoulder and elbow pads. They have hired an engineer with a military background who plans to put sensors on players next season, so he can measure the forces when players make and receive hits. The military does something similar when it designs equipment.
“We’re trying to go about the process the right way, to figure out what the right amount of protection is, how small we can get the gear so it still keeps the guys protected, what kind of effect that’s going to have,” Schneider said. “Everything that we can do to bring the number down as low as possible – obviously as close as we can get to zero – is the goal.”
This is an ongoing process. But for the first time in a long time, the GMs talked about something else, and that spoke volumes.
“We’re not looking at any core fundamental problems,” Bettman said. “To the contrary, people are feeling very good about the game, and I think that’s a testament to the work that the general managers do on an ongoing basis.
“We think concussions are down, and we think that’s in large measure because of the work that Brendan’s been doing and the players are getting it. So we think we’re heading in the right direction.
“It’s clear that what’s going on is having a positive impact.”