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Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Daily Debate: Can the league do more to prevent head injuries?

By Pierre LeBrun and Craig Custance

Pierre LeBrun and Craig Custance discuss what the league can do about the proliferation of head injuries in the NHL.

LeBrun: Good day, Craig, hope your remote control survived the heavy slate of action Tuesday night in the NHL, with 12 games on the schedule.

And again showing how tightly contested things are in this league, eight of those games were decided by one goal, five of them needing extra time. And that's not even counting Montreal's 5-3 home win over the Islanders, which included Hal Gill's empty-net goal in what was really a one-goal affair.

All of which underlines what incredible parity there exists. We've all mentioned that word a lot since the lockout ended in 2005, and the salary cap promised to shrink the gap in talent, but seven years out, it's actually more true than ever. Only four points separate sixth-place Toronto from 12th-place Washington in the Eastern Conference. In the West, Chicago (40 points), Detroit (39 points) and St. Louis (37 points) are within a whisker of each other for the Central Division lead. The Pacific Division is wide open, with Dallas (35 points), San Jose (33 points) and Phoenix (33 points) fighting their highs and lows in the race for that division title. The reeling Kings (30 points) aren't far behind, but on Tuesday night in Boston they suffered their fifth straight loss.

Nearly every market in the league still has a chance. Some call it mediocrity, others competitive balance.

In the end, however, once again one of the biggest factors in determining who gets into the playoff dance will be health. In particular, the list of concussions continues to take its toll on key players around the league. The number of concussions is actually down from a year ago, the league says, but the number of high-end skaters afflicted with head injuries is a reminder of how much work there still is to do.

Sidney Crosby, of course, remains out with concussion-like symptoms, and joining him is the NHL's leading scorer, Claude Giroux, whom the Flyers announced Tuesday was out indefinitely with a concussion. Teammate Chris Pronger also has concussion-like symptoms, and Andy McDonald of the Blues remains out with a concussion. The Ottawa Senators announced Wednesday morning that the NHL's goal-scoring leader, Milan Michalek, who left Tuesday night's game in Buffalo, is out with a concussion following a collision with teammate Erik Karlsson. Giroux also collided with a teammate. What's with these freakish injuries?

The league and the players' association have tackled the concussion issue hard in the past several years, but it's a battle far from won. Your thoughts?

Custance:: It has to be frustrating for fans who are tired of hearing about concussions, but every time the focus turns to actual hockey and the great product on the ice, there's an incident that brings us all back to reality. Whether it's Crosby, Giroux, Pronger or a scary moment like the hit from Zach Bogosian on Pierre-Marc Bouchard Tuesday night, there are constant reminders of just how dangerous the game is given the size, speed and skill of today's player.

What do you do if you're Flyers GM Paul Holmgren? He said he hopes to have a clearer understanding of Pronger's injury today, but I asked him if a long-term injury to Pronger would change his plans this season and how he approaches the trade deadline.

"The first thing I would say is you can't replace him," Holmgren answered. "No matter what you do, there aren't guys like that available. Do we need to improve our depth? I don't know."

The uncertainty makes it a challenge for those who run teams. As for those in charge of the league, the question will be -- can the NHL do more? I mentioned it in my blog Tuesday, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly credits increased awareness and conservative treatment for the high number of players sidelined by concussion.

"I think it's the right thing to do. I think you're going to continue to see it," Daly said. "We have to do what we need to do from a league administrative perspective to minimize that risk for them."

So, Pierre, is there more the league can do to minimize risk?

LeBrun: There certainly isn't a cure-all to this issue. The league has approached it from different angles, from treatment to prevention. One key area, in my opinion, is equipment -- which I know you touched on in your blog Tuesday -- and more specifically shoulder pads. Over the years, they've become weapons as much as protection, thanks to the hard plastic shells and the thickness of modern pads.

Through the tireless efforts of NHL hockey operations vice president Kris King, the league has worked with manufacturers for several years to try to find a solution. Last season, players began wearing shoulder pads with added soft foam. It was a step in the right direction, but it still wasn't enough. So when Brendan Shanahan was charged to head the newly created player safety group in June, he pushed for a renewed effort in the shoulder pads department.

Shoulderpad
It's probably no panacea, but the league is testing lighter, thinner shoulder pads to help minimize impact.
I spoke with King on Wednesday and was informed that the league is in fact currently testing several prototypes (see photo) via 12 players on eight different NHL teams who are using them in actual games. The new shoulder pads are thinner and lighter and have very little plastic (if any). The league and NHLPA hope that the feedback gained from those real-time experiences will be valuable in hopefully instituting some version of these shoulder pads for all 700-plus players next season. Obviously, the key here is making sure the players are still protected all the while.

But enough about concussions, isn't there a big TV show on tonight?

Custance:: Finally. I've been waiting for the second "24/7" since HBO wrapped up the first one, and there's so much to look forward to. Will Max Talbot steal the show again? Will Santa's helpers be back? Will John Tortorella break Bruce Boudreau's record for cursing? Owner Ed Snider was talking about the access HBO gets, and he said they've been in situations within the Flyers dressing room that even he hasn't. That's impressive, although not everyone was thrilled about that access last season. I had a conversation with Brooks Laich this summer about the experience with HBO, and he said he didn't watch a single second of it when it aired. "I didn't enjoy it, it was almost like an invasion of privacy," he said. "You're doing a power-play meeting right before the game, trying to pre-scout something and there's a cameraman, microphone man, walking in and opening doors."

It didn't help that the Capitals were losing for most of it. But he understands the appeal for hockey fans and why this has become a can't-miss portion of the NHL calendar.

"When I was a kid, all I did was scour the Internet for pictures of hockey players, videos of hockey players," he said. "For fans to be able to see this, see their favorite players in streetclothes, it has to be fun."

LeBrun: I think what made last season's "24/7" show so compelling is that not only were fans treated to the kind of behind-the-scenes footage many of them likely had not seen before, but even the media hacks like ourselves saw the access we just don't get while covering the NHL. In other words, there was something for everyone: the new fan, the experienced fan and the seasoned journalists who cover the game. Pretty hard to miss the mark when that's the kind of all-encompassing audience you're attracting.

I see that Tortorella already is complaining about the HBO cameras crowding his style. Got to love Torts. You knew that was coming. My guess is that the Rangers' head coach won't watch a blink of it until the offseason. We'll see if I'm right or not. And yes, thank goodness Talbot is back again this year. Santa's helpers? That remains to be seen.

Custance:: It was those unplanned moments that made it great. And you're right: You walk away from each episode with new knowledge about guys you've seen a million times. I learned that hockey players eat a lot more candy on planes than I expected. I learned that Matt Cooke dresses just like his son. And we learned that rivalries like the one between the Penguins and Capitals are very real -- not just a creation of the media. There's no reason to expect this year's version featuring the Rangers and Flyers will be any different. Enjoy it tonight, Pierre. It's been fun.