Shocking and groundbreaking changes were made in the NHL today as Gary Bettman laid out a five-point plan for player safety.  Well, not so much “shocking” and “groundbreaking” as “yawn-inducing” and “status quo.”  Here is the five-point plan according to

  • Brendan Shanahan will work with the NHLPA on equipment safety
  • Players will be removed from the ice if they show concussion symptoms after a hit
  • Additional penalties or fines may be handed out to teams and coaches for players who are “repeat offenders”
  • An engineering firm will evaluate all 30 arenas for safety issues
  • A ‘blue-ribbon’ committee of former players will examine topics relevant to the issue

Now, as an “action plan” these ideas seem okay, but only if they actually lead to serious and concrete changes.  Otherwise this is all just an exercise in futility.  The main problem here is that the NHL has often refused to take a hard and fast stance on problems with the game.  In most cases the league likes to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis, and that strategy hasn’t worked thus far.

That’s why we have a “wheel of justice” and why we’re even having this discussion today.

The equipment safety and arena safety suggestions are good ones.  These points may possibly be the best parts of the action plan.  Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever and giving them larger, harder pads and placing them on an ice surface that hasn’t really changed in decades is just a recipe for injury.  If any glimmer of hope for change will come from this action plan, it could be in the form of changes to equipment and/or arenas.

It seems shocking that, in 2011, the commissioner of a professional sports league needs to come out and make a statement that players who show concussion symptoms should be removed from the game.  It seems obvious that this should happen, but concussions haven’t been given very much respect from the sporting world until recently.

The problem with this point and the point about “repeat offenders” lies in their ambiguity.  What are “concussion symptoms?”  The NHL website lists a few of them, but reportedly Sidney Crosby did not feel or display any of these during the Winter Classic and we all know his story.  While we’re on that topic, what is a “repeat offender?”  If Zdeno Chara injures another player during a “hockey play” will he be considered a repeat offender or a strong, tough defenseman?

The “wheel of justice” will continue to spin under this plan.

The other issue is that these recommendations protect players after the fact.  They may help those who have been concussed already and they might punish those who caused the injuries more severely, but they don’t prevent the acts themselves from happening and they don’t lower the number of concussions that take place.

Looking at the study released by the NHL, most concussions are caused by accidents or legal hits.  Accidents are responsible for 26 percent of concussions and 44 percent of concussions are caused by legal hits.  Yes, changes to equipment and the arena may help in these situations, but the league has shown no indication that they will do anything about hits to the head that aren’t from a player’s blindside.

If anything, the league owes it to the players to at least at a serious look at the rules of the game.  Maybe the “blue-ribbon” panel will do this.  Hopefully they will, even if it means examining the rules and deciding no changes are necessary.

The league doesn’t want to make rule changes for fear of alienating the audience.  That’s somewhat understandable.  We all enjoy hockey because it’s physical, but very few of us like seeing players injured.  The NHL is scared to make a rule that would possibly make the game seem “weaker,”  however the number of concussions that take place each year may demand such a rule.  If concussions are caused by accidents and legal hits, maybe something needs to change to reduce the likelihood of concussions happening.  Illegal hits apparently don’t cause many issues, so increasing punishment for these hits won’t do very much.

Overall, this plan represents a few minor tweaks when much more is needed.