Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NHL moving slowly on concussions is not so bad

The NHL announced action plan to reduce concussions has received a pretty negative response from fans. Maybe not all fans but certainly a good number expect a total ban on hits to the head. I think that it is inevitable but I can understand why the NHL is not ready to go there quite yet. Changes to the game always have unexpected consequences. In fact the increase in concussions can be directly linked to the crack down on obstruction. Despite the publicity around a small number of dumb acts of violence, most had injuries in hockey are occurring as a result of accidental collisions which increased as the game got faster.

I like what the NHL is doing and I believe there will be more changes coming. Action is certainly needed after over 10% of NHL players have suffered some type of concussion this season. Everyone can see there is a problem but I work in policy development and analysis and have seen the impact of knee jerk reaction to events. Unless you are going to totally ban hits to the head, then rule changes aren’t needed. I work in a regulatory environment and the knee jerk reaction to a compliance issues seems to always be adding more rules. But if you were to carefully examine the problem you might find that enforcement was weak or there was an information gap requiring some additional education. The NHL added penalties for staged accidents but they still occur and no one is penalized. If you were to review the rule book you will find many infractions that are not being called properly including charging and boarding. Though I would like to see the no touch icing introduced to make the game safer.

Here is my take on the 5 initiatives announced by the NHL this week.

1. Equipment Changes

The NHL says they are committed to making equipment safer. I’ve commented in the past how shoulder pads and elbow pads are like armour. Their construction goes beyond protecting the player and can easily be used as a weapon when hitting opponents. Softer pads would still protect and injure fewer people. We shall see if the league can actually bring about real change. Their battle to make goalie equipment smaller has not been an overwhelming success. Perhaps in this case there will be less resistance.

2. New Concussion Protocol

The NHL wants team physicians examining players with suspected head injuries in the dressing room instead of by a trainer on the bench with a coach standing over them. This is a big step forward in preventing players from doing further damage by playing after being concussed. No more Mikhail Grabovski waiving off the trainer and going back after taking two shots to the head. But don’t expect managers and coaches to quietly go along. Wait until a key player gets dinged in the head in the third period of a close game in March. If he seems to be alright team officials will begin questioning pulling players out of important games as a precaution. Fans who today are demanding that the NHL do something about concussions will do an about face when their team loses with a star sitting it out. I would also like to see players who have been punched in the head during a fight examined as well. Maybe the NHL’s stats might look different (ie, only 8% of concussion occur as a result of fights) if fighters were examined by doctors instead of being sent to the penalty box.

3. Make Rinks Safer

The NHL will be hiring a safety engineer to make rinks safer. There is no easier change for the NHL. It does not require a change in human behaviour. It just takes money. But this may just be a half measure if they only look at the glass and provide extra padding on stanchions. You need to consider the boards, the ice surface, lighting etc.

4. Tougher Penalties

The NHL will look at more disciplinary action for repeat offenders. This is the one initiative that is destined to create the most controversy. People will continue to criticize the league for being too soft, for being inconsistent, for discriminating in favour or against certain players, etc. I find the GMs are trying to have it both ways on irresponsible players. They know who they are; they offer them contracts and then complain about their behaviour. Most people immediately saw the hypocrisy of Mario Lemieux when he criticized the violence in the game at the same he had Matt Cooke on his payroll. When suspensions hit 10 games some players will take notice. When they hit 20 games many more will notice. At 40 games you will get everyone’s attention.

5. Study the Problem Further

The NHL announced that were forming a committee made up of Steve Yzerman, Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk and Brendan Shanahan to work with the Players Association and report back the board. I think some people see this aspect as an attempt to sweep the issue under the carpet. I think that 30 GMs sitting around a room for a day is not the proper structure for problem solving. I am pleased to see that the committee is made up of young, bright executives and not the older crowd (Brian Burke, Glen Sather) who may be too entrenched in the status quo. The game has changed so much you need to involve individuals who have played in the post-lockout NHL. I would have liked to have seen someone selected for the committee who lost considerable time to a head injury. I don’t recall any of these four falling into that category. I hope they speak to current and former players who have had serious concussions. Their recommendations need to balance what is good for the game with how these injuries impact on quality of life away from the rink and post-hockey careers.

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