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NHL 'caretakers' not open to change

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A change in culture isn't coming to the NHL anytime soon.

The general managers, who write the NHL rules, won't allow it. Owners have entrusted GMs to be "caretakers of the game," but for substantive change to occur, owners likely need to take back power.

The annual GM meetings, at which issues of the day are discussed, seemingly are designed to halt change. That became as clear as the Boca Raton Resort beach water during three days of GM meetings last week.

Headshots and concussions were the hot-button issues, and Days 1 and 2 provided practically everything anybody could want to know — statistics, instructional videos and a lot of talk about how to prevent an increasing number of head injuries.

Most transparent, however, was the glimpse into the mentality of the men who essentially control how hockey is played at the highest level. Toronto GM Brian Burke was influential because of his political capital with high-ranking NHL executives, his imposing nature during discussions and the favor he wins with the media because of his candor and bluster.

On Tuesday — a day after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared there was "no blanket support" for a headshot ban, even though league-provided statistics from Day 1 showed concussions were on the rise — Burke recalled skilled scorer Phil Kessel's first game with Toronto.

"Mattias Ohlund stepped up and drilled him, got him right in the head with a shoulder," Burke said. "We want that hit in the game. Phil has to be more alert and keep his head up. He didn't get a concussion on that play, but even if he did I'd have the same view."

Penguins GM Ray Shero insisted he doesn't care for such hits. He related personal anecdotes to drive home his point, uncomfortably discussing a concussion his 15-year-old son received in a junior hockey game and carefully detailing how his opinion has changed during the past 18 months after reviewing hits from many players, including controversial Penguins winger Matt Cooke.

Conversely, other GMs such as New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello repeatedly asked reporters what a hit to the head looked like.

This was the dynamic that existed at the meetings.

The league's 30 GMs arrived at these meetings knowing at least 80 players reportedly had been concussed this season. Their call to action: Denounce banning head hits and support the calling of penalties that they were befuddled weren't already being called.

"I've been impressed with everyone with how it's been approached," Lamoriello said Tuesday.

Shero arrived at the meetings joined in a "zero-tolerance" opinion on headshots by Carolina's Jim Rutherford — two men, like Burke and Lamoriello, who have built Stanley Cup-winning rosters.

Rutherford wasn't at zero by Wednesday, insisting he was comfortable with meetings-inspired proposals to improve player safety.

That Rutherford changed course made sense, considering nothing made sense on an absurd final day of the meetings, when GMs exhausted a couple of hours talking about the legality of shootout moves.

The night before, many of them had gathered at a bar to watch NHL games. Those games involved controversial headshots by San Jose's Dany Heatley and Douglas Murray and Boston's Brad Marchand — with Heatley and Marchand, each since suspended two games, delivering elbows to heads of unsuspecting players.

The GMs had quick-exit plans to catch afternoon flights back home, but those who spoke with the media danced around questions about those hits — except for Shero, who once again made his stance clear.

His was a minority opinion, though, and these meetings were no place for minority opinions to be seriously considered.

Burke was often dismissive of "the couple guys" who differed from a presumed consensus on matters, even though most GMs appeared willing to drift into the middle on any topic that didn't include the word "trapezoid."

It was no secret Shero represented Penguins ownership, which believes the sport is becoming unnecessarily violent at the highest level. Equally unmistakable was the agitated tone of Burke and Bettman when the media mentioned "Penguins" or "Mario Lemieux."

Shero had his small group of supporters — Rutherford, Montreal's Pierre Gauthier and Buffalo's Darcy Regier. They were divided up when GMs split into groups of 10 for discussions and thus more easily conquered by the likes of Burke and Detroit's Ken Holland — just two of the power-playing veteran GMs who have become masters of this universe.

"While a lot of us label us as hockey purists, there are a lot of guys who are proactive, especially in regards to players' safety," Boston GM Peter Chiarelli said. "It will never go away, but we'll continue to discuss it."

Indeed, the GMs will discuss player safety until the last of the progressives are exhausted by pushing for stiff measures to assure it.

That is the plan, and the "hockey purists" among the GMs will stick with it because it works so effectively. They don't just write the rules for hockey, they set the agenda — and there is a Old Boys Club where change isn't welcome.

Shero said the beauty of the meetings was "being in there with 29 other managers."

"We all respect each other's opinion," he said.

There wasn't evidence to suggest Shero's opinion was paid much respect.

In a private moment, after he had spoken for three days about cleaning up the game, Shero flashed a bemused look worth the thousands of words he had offered to push for change. Each syllable probably felt like wasted breath.

Additional Information:

Help wanted

The Penguins are leading a charge to clean up the NHL's culture, including a ban on headshots. They cannot win this battle against the league's old guard alone, and their cause would be enhanced by support from the following influential figures:

Ken Schanzer, NBC Sports president: He manages the network's day-to-day relations with the NHL and is the NBC's lead negotiator on rights acquisitions. The NHL doesn't have a more lucrative U.S. broadcast option than NBC, which owns Versus and 11 regional sports networks.

Donald Fehr, NHL Players' Association chief executive: Arguably North America's most imposing labor executive is still feeling his way around the NHL landscape. History suggests he won't stay quiet for long, and he will get the players whatever they want.

Geoff Molson, Montreal Canadiens owner: His words carry weight with hockey's most impassioned and largest group of fans and French-Canadian media that will be persistent about keeping these issues on the front burner.

? Wayne Gretzky, NHL icon: He remains hockey's most recognizable figure, but he has never really taken a stance on anything controversial. Now would be an opportune time. A tandem of Gretzky and Mario Lemieux pressing to make the game safer could A.) assert never-before-seen public-relations pressure on the NHL's old guard, and B.) carry considerable weight with influential U.S.-based corporate sponsors.




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