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Friday, March 11, 2011
GMs face monumental task at meetings

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Imagine that the men who run the NHL's 30 teams are a planet unto themselves and a meteor shower of unprecedented ferocity is raging around them.

Starting Monday, these men will gather in South Florida with the eyes of the hockey world upon them. They will gather amid a cacophony of sound that screams one phrase: do something.

Do something.

Do something.

But what? That is the $64 question.

Has there ever been a time when more is going to be asked of the game's caretakers? If they are who they claim to be, are they up to answering the challenge?

The hockey world is abuzz after Tuesday's horrific incident involving Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra after the Bruins defenseman checked him into a padded stanchion supporting a glass partition between the team benches, while Chara was ejected from the game but not subject to supplemental discipline.

The ruling sparked outrage, mostly in Canada and specifically in Quebec, where police are investigating the incident and local politicians and business leaders are making hay off of it. Habs owner Geoff Molson, a newcomer to the normally fade-to-the-background, one-voice ownership group, issued a public letter critical of the league's handling of the incident.

Max Pacioretty
Montreal's Max Pacioretty was taken off on a stretcher after being hit into a stanchion by Boston's Zdeno Chara.

But the Chara hit isn't the only flash point confronting the GMs; it is merely another in a seemingly mountain-like list of issues and incidents:

• The game's best player, Sidney Crosby, remains sidelined by a concussion sustained during the game's marquee event, the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.

• There have been a handful of games that hearken back to the sport's bloody days of the 1970s, when brutality and intimidation were a part of a viable game plan.

• One of the game's owners, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, has called out the league for its failure to deal with on-ice mayhem following a game involving the New York Islanders and his Pittsburgh Penguins.

• Former tough guy Bob Probert, who died last summer, was revealed to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease believed to have been brought on at least in part by the pounding he took as one of the game's most feared fighters.

• Away from the game but nonetheless germane to the task that confronts NHL GMs, former NFL player Dave Duerson took his own life but bequeathed his brain to science because he feared the pounding he took as a player was connected to his post-career medical and mental issues. Reports indicate he too believed he was suffering from CTE.

• Earlier this season in an interview with ESPN.com, Marc Savard described the severe depression that led him to consider retiring last summer. He didn't, but shortly after returning to action this season, he suffered another season-ending concussion after being checked into the boards. It is unknown whether he will play again.

All these threads have been bound together to form a tapestry of chaos.

Against a shrill and relentless call for change and demand for them to act, the GMs will gather Monday to unravel the threads and chart not just a path, but the right path for the game.

But know this: regardless of what is said in millions of tweets and message boards and columns and broadcasts, change will not come next week. The GMs are not in the business of reacting to public pressure. They aren't in the business of knee-jerk response.

But change may begin at the meetings.

The competition committee exists to carry GMs' ideas forward to the NHL's owners for final approval, but the GMs meetings are ground zero for hockey change. The GMs have always fiercely protected that mantel (look around the room and you can understand why they believe they are the best equipped to face the game's challenges).

"You have to be really careful about outside voices and outside opinions," Washington GM George McPhee said in an interview this week. "You can just never know about the consequences if you take big leaps."

In that way, it's not hard to resist the outside pressures, he said. "This is a complex game."

Sometimes, the notion of calm amid chaos is good; sometimes, it merely reinforces the perception in some quarters that the GMs are a closed society cocooned from reality.

Two years ago, then-NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly and NHLPA executive and former player Glenn Healy were invited to these late-season meetings and proposed a rule that would penalize a player for hitting an unsuspecting or vulnerable player. They were essentially laughed out of the room and told the current rulebook would take care of that, thank you very much.

Then, late last season, the GMs had to acknowledge that wasn't the case. After several brutal hits, most notably Matt Cooke on Savard and Mike Richards on David Booth, both of which went without a suspension from the league, the NHL hurried Rule 48 into existence.

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 6 because of a concussion.

Who knows what might have happened had the GMs listened to the union two years ago. Would the rules have deterred those two hits or others?

Even in introducing Rule 48, the league opted not to take on the full recommendations from the union that penalties include north/south blows to the head of unsuspecting players.

"In my view, the head of an opposing player should never be fair game," Kelly, now the point man for NCAA hockey, told ESPN.com. "We simply can and must do a better job of protecting players and, by extension, the game. We still see far too many concussions, and unless we stiffen the rules, we will never change the culture on the ice."

Still, for the most part, GMs believe Rule 48 works.

"That was a big step in protecting players and it's worked well," McPhee said.

And the league has indicated that concussions, while up overall, are down from those types of blindside hits and the increase is due to incidental contact similar to the Crosby/David Steckel collision on Jan. 1.

Before he traveled to Florida, Detroit GM Ken Holland polled a large number of his players about what they thought of the rules and what concerns they had. The vast majority said they liked the rules, Holland told ESPN.com. They like the rules designed to protect the vulnerable player, but they also want the onus on the puck carrier to keep his head up. They want to be able to separate a player from the puck, legally, Holland said.

"I think it's a safer workplace today than it was a year ago," he said. "I would say to you we've got a great game. I don't think the game's ever been better. I think the game's in incredible shape."

What cannot happen, he said, is that the league finds itself putting in rules in response to every incident.

What rule, for instance, could be put in place to prevent the Crosby/Steckel collision?

"I don't know what rules you can put in to stop that," Holland said. "Every time we have an injury, we can't have a rule change to make sure that never happens again."

After talking to several GMs this week, Holland is not the only one to raise that query.

In some ways, the debate over the game has been clouded by the perception that, if you voice concerns about taking the physicality out of the game, then you are far down the evolutionary chain, someone who enjoys the sight of blood on the ice and players being carted off on stretchers.

But anyone who is honest about their appreciation for the game acknowledges the nature of hockey: the speed, and the often physical contact at that speed by world-class athletes, is part of its DNA.

To tamper with that DNA is a sacred trust, regardless of what the columnists and Twitter brigade say. Every change that is made is a change that has the potential to change the integrity of the game, "the fabric of the game," Nashville GM David Poile told ESPN.com.

It's not that GMs won't entertain the idea of change, but they will do so with great reverence. Some outside these meetings will mistake patience for intransigence. It is a fine line, to be sure.

Poile outlined the circular argument the GMs must puzzle through: how to make the environment as safe as possible for players while understanding, at its core, hockey is a dangerous game.

That is what it will come down to in the air-conditioned meeting rooms at the Boca Beach Club: whether or not the GMs can come to some sort of agreement on protecting the on-ice assets without altering the fundamental nature and appeal of the game.

"I'm not sure any of us exactly has an answer," Poile said. "It's a very difficult subject."

That said, the Nashville GM said there isn't a single day that goes by where this issue -- how to make the game safer while maintaining the game itself -- isn't discussed around the NHL.

"It's first and foremost. Nothing's more important right now," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.