BOCA RATON, Fla. — Eager to keep their game fast and physical, NHL general managers decided Tuesday against recommending major rule changes to curb concussions, opting to push for tighter enforcement of charging and boarding penalties instead.
The GMs also will stress the need for with longer suspensions for illegal head hits, particularly for repeat offenders.
A rise in concussions this season, including two recent high-profile cases, put the issue at the top of the GMs’ agenda. But following a second day of meetings, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the group decided a ban on all head shots would be too radical a response.
Instead, the GMs focused on existing rules that pertain to charging and boarding.
“By the time the season is over there will be 55,000 hits, and a small percentage are resulting in concussions,” Bettman said. “We want to eliminate concussions, but the view is if we can define a rule that makes sense and doesn’t cause other problems in the game, we’re going to try and do that.”
Also rejected were changes that would slow the game to reduce the force of collisions.
“We don’t want to slow down the game,” Montreal’s Pierre Gauthier said. “It’s a good game.”
The GMs may still propose stricter rules on head hits involving a vulnerable player or excessive force, Bettman said. A committee will study options and draft recommendations for the Board of Governors to consider at its June meeting, with possible implementation next season.
Blindside hits to the head were banned last year. Some hockey leagues prohibit all head shots, but the GMs decided against a blanket ban.
“It would take a lot of hitting out of the game, a lot of the physical part of the game that makes our game so appealing,” Ottawa’s Bryan Murray said.
“The consensus is that the rules in the rule book are sufficient, and we’ve got to get to a tighter standard on calling charging and boarding,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. “Without changing the fabric of the game, I think we can take out some of the more dangerous hits.”
Nearly half of all concussions this season have been caused by legal hits, according to a league study. The GMs believe stiffer, more aggressive enforcement of charging and boarding violations will reduce that rate.
They think tougher disciplinary measures will help, too. Former All-Star Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice president of hockey and business development, said the GMs’ push for longer suspensions was a significant step.
“It speaks volumes to the players and our fans that they’re serious about safety in the game,” Shanahan said.
As in other sports, awareness about concussions is on the rise in the NHL. The league considers itself at the forefront in confronting the problem, but recent injuries intensified debate about the game’s rules and policies.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby has been sidelined since early January because of a concussion, and the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty sustained a severe concussion and cracked vertebra last week when he was driven into a glass partition by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
On Monday, Bettman said the league would study ways to make the playing area safer, but he defended the league’s decision not to fine or suspend Chara. Stiffer enforcement of boarding rules wouldn’t have changed the legality of that collision, Bettman said.
“It was a hockey play,” he said. “It was an accident. It had a horrific result.”
Montreal fans upset about the league’s handling of the matter planned a protest before Tuesday’s game against Washington. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said injuries from hits to the head are part of hockey.
“If you don’t like it, don’t come to the games,” Boudreau said. “I think players realize they could get hurt.”