NEW YORK – The NHL's new protocol to evaluate players who have potentially sustained a concussion is hardly perfect, but the league is pleased in the early stages.
At the March meeting of NHL general managers, new guidelines were adopted that make it mandatory for any player showing concussion symptoms to be examined by a doctor in the locker room or a quiet room. Before, an examination on the bench by a trainer was the minimum requirement.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said during a meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors on Friday that they are happy with how teams are handling the process that has been in place for only a month.
The new evaluation guidelines are the latest step by the NHL, which is trying to slow the rising rate of concussions. Last year, GMs approved a ban of blindside hits that target an opponent's head. The group voted against a full outlaw of head shots last month.
"We're primarily raising awareness of the clubs and the club personnel of what they should be looking for and how the players should be evaluated," Daly said. "The focus, unfortunately, has been too much on how this has been a league mandate, and if it looks like something happened and there is noncompliance, what was the penalty?
"That is not how we focus on it. We're not like the concussion police. We are trying to sensitize everyone to the issue. We have had overwhelmingly unbelievable compliance."
The NHL, like the NFL, faces a constant struggle of weighing player safety with the speed and violent nature of the games — key reasons why these sports are so popular.
"We celebrate the big hit, we don't like the big head hit," Bettman said. "There is an important distinction because we celebrate body-checking."
Fighting isn't going away anytime soon, either, at least until evidence is presented that shows punches are a major cause of hockey concussions. The same goes for what is now legal head contact.
The NHL continues to cite data that states concussions are caused more often by accidental contact with players, the boards, the glass and ice, than by hits to the head.
"Something happens in the game and then there is an immediate reaction, 'What are they going to do?'" Bettman said. "We're trying to use a commonsense approach. We don't want players staying out there if they have been concussed, but if somebody is not really likely to have sustained a concussion ... we had a player who had to be pulled off the bench to get evaluated.
"We're trying to evolve it. It is mandatory, but like every change we've got to get people used to it."
That also goes to changing the culture of the ultra-tough hockey player who is supposed to play through every ache and pain — and come back to the ice right after being stitched, patched or whatever treatment is necessary.
Concussions are totally different, and players such as superstar Sidney Crosby recognize that more now. After the Pittsburgh Penguins captain absorbed two hits in a span of five days in early January, Crosby has been out because of a concussion.
"We made a video explaining to people who play the game, whether it's our players or kids, if you have these symptoms, get yourself diagnosed and do what you need to do to come back from the concussion appropriately, not too quickly," Bettman said. "We want players to be conscious of getting themselves treated the right way because it appears that if you have a concussion and you aggravate it, it's worse. We don't want players to rush back if they're concussed."
Bettman also addressed the rash of plays during the first round of the playoffs that have resulted in suspensions and fines, or outcries from those who feel supplemental discipline was necessary and not dished out.
There have been 33 postseason games played through Thursday, and already four players have received suspensions. Another was fined for making an obscene gesture.
"The level of intensity and emotion rises (in the playoffs)," Bettman said. "Our regular season, particularly the last six to eight weeks, is like the playoffs before the playoffs. It hits a whole new crescendo when we get to the playoffs.
"Players overwhelmingly do the right things."
One who escaped punishment was Vancouver Canucks forward Raffi Torres, whose hit on Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook caused a concussion but wasn't deemed to be a violation of Rule 48 on blindside hits to the head. Torres hit Seabrook with what was considered a legal shoulder shot to the head, and was penalized only for interference.
Torres seemed to be a sure bet to be suspended, especially because he was suspended for the final two games of the regular season and the first two in the series against Chicago, for elbowing Edmonton's Jordan Eberle in the head on April 5. Seabrook hasn't played since the hit in Game 3, Torres' first game back in the lineup.
"There are things that happen, and that's why we have a supplemental discipline procedure," Bettman said. "It's interesting because if there aren't suspensions during the playoffs, people say we're taking our foot off the gas. When there is supplemental discipline, it's 'Why is there so much?' It's a balance."