Starkey: NHL GMs whiff on open net

| Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello raised a fascinating philosophical question the other day at the GM meetings in Florida amid the furor surrounding head shots.

Said Lou: “What is a hit to the head?”

Hmmm. I guess I always thought of a hit to the head as ... a hit ... to ... the ... head. As in, I use part of my body — say, one of my shoulders — to deliver a check to the area where your neck stops and your chin begins. Most cultures refer to it as the head.

Am I missing something?

The GMs sure did, whiffing on the equivalent of an open net by refusing to recommend a full ban on head shots in a league where 1 in 10 players has been concussed this season. This was their chance. And while it's nice the topic finally reached the table, these guys have been known to move slower than former Penguins center Milan Kraft when it comes to making fundamental, safety-enhancing changes.

I remember covering the All-Star Game in 1998, my first year as a Penguins beat writer, and hearing players voice concerns about the seamless glass surrounding rinks. They said it had no give. Some had suffered head injuries. Their concern sparked a discussion.

One that has lasted 13 years.

Incredibly, we still have several arenas sporting seamless glass (Consol Energy Center is not one of them). Thankfully, part of commissioner Gary Bettman's plan to reduce concussions is to recommend the removal of such glass.Other initiatives are coming, including more caution in assessing players suspected of having a concussion.

All of which is appropriate, but banning head hits would have been the revolutionary change hockey needs — and the change old-school GMs such as Toronto's Brian Burke couldn't stomach.

Why does it have to be so complicated• Obviously there would be issues in implementing such radical change. That was the case coming out of the lockout, too, when the league instituted a zero-tolerance policy on clutching and grabbing in an effort to open up the neutral zone. Players adjusted. So did referees. And there are still many gray areas.

One of the big worries about banning head hits is how taller players could legally check smaller players without making contact to the head. That is a legitimate concern. It would be a gray area. As would players attempting to draw penalties by ducking.

That's why referees get paid.

I asked 6-foot-5 Penguins winger Mike Rupp about the tall-guy argument. He wasn't buying it.

“The first piece of my body should not be hitting the other guy's head first,” Rupp said. “Any first contact to the head, I don't think should be allowed.”

Bingo. And it's worth noting again that many of the NHL's major feeder systems already ban head shots. That would include the Ontario Hockey League, the NCAA and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Does anyone watch college hockey and think it's soft?

Bettman trotted out some intriguing numbers from the league's recent study on concussions, or at least the 80 or so reported this season. It revealed that 44 percent resulted from legal hits, 26 percent from accidental hits, 17 percent from illegal hits and eight percent from fighting (five percent were undetermined).

What to make of it• First, the elimination of fighting apparently could eliminate nearly 1 in 10 concussions. That's notable, though I'm sure many would look at the above numbers as proof that only so much can be done to reduce concussions in a high-speed, collision sport.

I agree to an extent — there will always be concussions in hockey — but that's not the point.

The point is how concussions can be dramatically reduced, and here's the most disturbing number of all, as reported by the New York Times: Of the 44 percent of concussions caused by legal hits, 14 percent can be attributed to what Bettman called “legal head shots."

"Legal head shots" should be outlawed.

Fifteen years and hundreds of concussions from now, maybe they will be.

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