BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It was all very agreeable for the NHL’s general managers this week as they met in a place far removed from their day-to-day reality to deal with the increasingly vocal criticism about violence in their game.
Even the nail-biting playoff races involving many of their teams couldn’t inspire much of a dispute among the participants. In fact many of the GMs spent the final evening together in a local sports bar watching NHL games that provided several instances of dangerous plays their three-day meeting was focused on preventing, some of them were between their own teams.
Yet in this laid back environment along the Atlantic shore, there seemed to be no problem keeping emotions in check.
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"We both took a sip of our beer and looked at each other, actually that happened at several moments during that game," said San Jose GM Doug Wilson, who watched his Sharks win a heavy-hitting contest against division-rival Dallas sitting next to Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk. "When the puck is dropped, we respect the fact you didn’t really talk about it.
"But when it’s all over, you’re trying to look at how the game is played, how we want it played and I think that’s basically what you saw here for the last few days. You separate issues. That’s the beauty of having these meetings after trade deadline, instead of emotions, or self-interest or the most recent issue driving it, you have an opportunity to do what’s right for the game."
In the case of this three-day get together, "what’s right" was debatable for everyone on the outside, and a talking point for those on the inside.
There has been pressure on the league all season to deal with dangerous injury-causing plays, particularly head shots, and it boiled over a few days before the meetings began when Boston’s Zdeno Chara left Montreal’s Max Pacioretty with a concussion and broken neck following a controversial hit. But for most GMs, especially those belonging to a hawkish old guard, tinkering with anything involving hitting is anathema.
"What is a hit to the head, and what exactly are we talking about?" said New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello. "We’ve got to be careful how we determine that."
Last year at these meetings, the GMs determined outlawed blind-side and lateral hits to the head were no longer to be allowed. The GMs stood firm in opposition to calls for banning all head shots this time around, but instead but were unanimous in their willingness to address the current problems in a different way.
"It’s much more collaborative in nature than before, people weren’t drawing lines in the sand," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "For whatever reason, people are willing to listen and mull things over and have conversations."
"Clearly there’s been a little more movement, guys are sensitive to what’s going on," added Carolina’s Jim Rutherford. "Everyone feels very strong about doing something to make the game safer, and as we get more data, it helps us make better decisions.
The data Rutherford was talking about came from the league, which has been tracking concussions and their causes all season. The numbers show that roughly 44 percent of those so far have been caused by legal hits, while injuries from blind side and lateral hits to the head have been drastically reduced. So now the league will look at reducing hits that occur below the goal line and along the boards -- the ones where concussions result from a player's head bouncing off the glass, usually when the victim is stationary and the hitter has lined him up.
"We have the [charging and boarding] rules in place to deal that," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said. "They’re all there, but we just have to be more aggressive in enforcing them."
It’s part of a multi-faceted attempt the league will make to reduce the potential risk factor for its players going forward. Part of the effort will include a re-examination of the equipment, arena structures and a new protocol for tending to players suspected of sustaining a concussion. But the major aspect of all this will be stricter enforcement of charging and boarding penalties and tougher supplemental discipline.
Problem is that’s not exactly a quick fix. The GMs recommendations for on-ice changes have to go to the players association and competition committee for approval before the board of governors can make them official in June.
"The one thing we heard from managers was they wanted supplemental punishment increased," said NHL VP of operations Colin Campbell. "That’s fine until it’s their player and they say it wasn’t a big deal.
"But we have to send out tapes of all kinds of different disciplines, telling players this will get you this many games, or managers do you want this penalty to be eight games instead of four. There’s a lot to do so nothing can change for the rest of this season. But the thing is that whatever we do, we want to make sure we get it right."
And that’s something everyone agrees on.