In a wicked sense, the devastating hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty last week may have come at exactly the right time.
As the NHL's General Managers meet in Boca Raton, Fla. this week for their annual GM Meetings, the uproar over that hit has hoisted the issue right back to the top of the agenda, and on Monday, Commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled a five-point plan for dealing with the issue of player safety.
The plan includes (via NHL.com)...
1. More emphasis on equipment
Brendan Shanahan has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the Players' Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.
As anybody who dabbles in attempting to play hockey already knows, you feel like a warrior when you strap on all the pads. Gone are the days of the flimsy shoulder pads and the weak helmet. Today's hockey equipment is big, made of hard plastic and durable.
As a result, you don't feel a damn thing when you get hit with a puck or, generally speaking, when you hit somebody else. That hard equipment and that lack of pain, though, leads to reckless play and useless injuries, and that's exactly what the NHL means when they say Shanahan and the PA will work to "reduce the size without reducing its protectiveness."
It's an interesting rope to walk -- you don't want taper the equipment so much that the current safety it provides evaporates, but you also want to make sure players don't feel like they can do anything in the world out there on the ice without consequence. You know, because they're warriors.
2. Changes in concussion protocol
The NHL Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management has been revised in three areas: 1) Mandatory removal from play if a player reports any listed symptoms or shows any listed signs (loss of consciousness ... Motor incoordination/balance problems ... Slow to get up following a hit to the head ... blank or vacant look ... Disorientation (unsure where he is) ... Clutching the head after a hit ... Visible facial injury in combination with any of the above). 2) Examination by the team physician (as opposed to the athletic trainer) in a quiet place free from distraction. 3) Team physician is to use 'an acute evaluation tool' such as the NHL SCAT 2 [SCAT stands for Sports Concussion Assessment Tool] as opposed to a quick rinkside assessment.
In the NFL, the team physician on the sideline has to clear the player of any concussion symptoms using a few base line tests. This is, essentially, the NHL's implementation of that same thing. The player must leave the bench and head back to a training room or the locker room, where they are away from the noises and the lights of the arena. A test will be given. It makes sense.
3. Punishment for team, coach with repeat offenders
The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of 'repeat offenders' with regard to Supplementary Discipline.
Let's call this the Mario Lemieux Rule, shall we? Clearly formed by the uproar caused by the Penguins owner over the New York Islanders massacre earlier in the season, this makes a whole lot of sense too. If you're one of those teams that employs a repeat offender -- like, to be fair, the Pens do in Matt Cooke -- you'll be subject to extra discipline from the NHL.
It puts emphasis on changing the culture of that part of the game. If you, as the pest or the enforcer, know that you're going to get a suspension if you're reckless on the ice, that's fine. As Cooke said a few weeks ago, he acts like that basically because he believes he has to if he wants to stay in the league. The ends justify the means, right?
But if you're going to financially hurt both your coach and your team with your actions, it becomes a little more than that. There's more accountability and there's more emphasis on changing that culture. At least in theory.
4. Alterations to the "Rink Enviroment"
In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.
And let's call this one the Max Pacioretty Rule. After Pacioretty busted his head on the stanchion last week at Bell Centre, this will hopefully lead to a change in how rinks are designed. In the blurb above released by the NHL, the focus seems to be on the seamless glass that's currently in several NHL arenas. That's a good first step.
The turnbuckle near the bench is clearly a bigger issue, though, as the potential for injury is much more severe. Ask the City of Montreal -- they'll tell you all about it. I don't have any solutions to present for that issue, which is obviously a unique one based on the differences of each NHL arena. You obviously have to have some sort of turnbuckle along the boards at some point because at the benches, the glass has to start somewhere.
Maybe they can simply pull the glass back a bit at the turn so there's not a wall of glass at that point like the one Pacioretty hit last week. I don't have the answers, but hopefully the firm hired by the NHL can figure something out.
5. A committee of former players in leadership roles
A 'blue-ribbon' committee of Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk -- all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 -- to examine topics relevant to the issue.
Shanahan and Blake work for the NHL these days, while Yzerman and Nieuwendyk are general managers with Tampa Bay and Dallas, respectively. This committee makes sense, too, but it'll be interesting to see how the two GMs are able to incorporate the opinions of the players that work for them. After all, these guys are all a few years removed from their playing careers, and while they're all great ex-players, they're still just that: ex-players.