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Friday, December 16, 2011
Weekend notebook: Can NHL curb the concussions?

By Pierre LeBrun

The concussion saga has taken over all the talk this past week. What can we do with high-profile player after high-profile player dropping like flies?

But despite the bad optics, there was no league memo sent to teams and no new measures discussed, because the league feels it's already doing as much as it can in terms of prevention and treatment.

“The only way you’re going to totally eliminate concussions from the game is to stop playing the game,” Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, told ESPN.com on Thursday. “We’re not inclined to stop playing the game, and players aren’t, either. There’s a certain level of risk that everyone accepts in any profession. If I’m a construction worker, I’m more likely to have health issues than if I’m an office worker. It’s just the nature of the job.”

Pronger
Chris Pronger is the latest player to be sidelined for an extended time because of a concussion.
There are no more concussions this season than last season at this time, but I think because of the big names involved it has given the story more juice, and that’s understandable. What could possibly be worse than having Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Milan Michalek, Mike Richards, Chris Pronger and Jeff Skinner sidelined at the same time?

“I'd say that we've been on this regardless of which players are hurt,” Brendan Shanahan, director of the Player Safety Department at the NHL, told ESPN.com via email Thursday. “The nature of these latest injuries shows that there's no 'magic pill' that prevents ALL concussions. I'd also say that players and teams are more cautionary now in the identification and treatment than ever before -- which is the right thing to do. Because of the leadership of groups like the Concussion Working Group and the protocols in place, we're catching more of these injuries before a player is placed in the MORE dangerous position of a secondary concussion on top of another.’’

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who has been a leading voice among his colleagues on the elimination of head shots, says the speed of the game has become more than ever a big factor.

“We have a game that’s very, very fast now,” Rutherford told ESPN.com on Thursday. “Really at the level of speed that it appears that players don’t have time to react at times to an opponent coming or a teammate coming. These concussions are happening from good hits, from accidental hits, from accidental hits from teammates, to periodically bad hits. The league has taken this very, very seriously going back a few years and probably ahead of any other league, and the key is to continue to do studies and have conversations about what we’re dealing with and what we can possibly do, if anything, to prevent or lessen some of the injuries that are taking place now.’’

One theory out there is whether the red line should be put back in for two-line passes to slow down the forecheckers and therefore the impact of their hits. Some even wonder if the league should allow the return of a little more interference in certain areas of the ice to slow down the players. I doubt either idea ever sees the light of day. The game has never been more fun to watch; who wants to regress from there?

“We have to keep this a really good game, which we have now, and we have to think of the safety of the players. Those are the two things we deal with,” Rutherford said. “We don’t want to go back to the old game because the new game now is much more accepted by fans, media, players -- everybody. But is there something in the game that can be changed a little bit to give players a little more reaction time? I don’t have an answer for it. But I know the league continues to talk about it. Everybody continues to talk about it. And hopefully somebody comes up with an idea or two that can help try to prevent as many injuries as we’re getting.’’

There is no cure-all answer. That’s the truth, no matter how hard it is to digest when some of the game’s top players aren’t on the ice.


All-Star Game Captains



It’s as close to a done deal as it gets: Daniel Alfredsson of the host Ottawa Senators will be one of the All-Star Game captains. That’s a no-brainer.

But what about the other?

If it were me, I’d select Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks. The classy winger is more than likely in his final NHL season, and he’s been nothing but a tremendous ambassador for the game throughout his career. And I’m told internally that the league has indeed brought up his name as a candidate, although at this point nothing is decided. Let’s do the right thing and honor the Finnish Flash.

Conference Games



I can’t tell you how many readers or Twitter followers have asked me about the names for the new conferences next season under realignment.

Many fans would love to see Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr honored with the four conferences named after them.

But unless there’s a change of heart at the league head office, my sense is that the conference names will remain geographically themed, similar to the current division names.

I think the concern at the league level is the potential political backlash. How would the Flyers and their fans react to putting up a Mario Lemieux Conference pennant in their rafters? Or the Habs celebrating a Bobby Orr Conference title? That’s the basic concern.

The league could still be swayed. Nothing is written in stone, but right now the general feeling is to stick with geography.

Sharks Coach



Well, given the two coaching firings in Southern California already this season, I suppose we can’t be shocked the San Jose Mercury News pondered the fate of a certain coach in Northern California.

What I’m hearing is that San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan is in absolutely no danger at this point. And frankly, that’s the way it should be. San Jose’s recent struggles are not on him. They’re on the top players on his team who haven’t performed up to their level, beginning with Martin Havlat and his one goal so far this season. (But I will say I thought Havlat may have played his best game of the season Thursday night versus Colorado.)

Either way, my sense is that Sharks GM Doug Wilson is solidly behind McLellan at this point.

NHLPA/Realignment



The league and NHL Players’ Association have gone back and forth on realignment over the past week or so, the league providing materials to the union, which had specific questions about the proposed new format for next season.

The two sides are expected to speak again next week. The league wants to get the union’s blessing so it can get to work on next season’s schedule. I’ll be curious to see whether the NHLPA plays hard ball with this. The NHLPA says it’s within its collective bargaining agreement rights to have a say in realignment.