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Blindside hits rule remains under general managers' microscope

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) plays against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

Gene J. Puskar/AP2011

With Mario Lemieux stoking the fires of debate on hits to the head and concussions with his recent criticism of the NHL, fans can expect a more varied approach as the league's general managers consider the matter up to and including their annual meetings in March.

At this point, though, no one is willing to predict what will happen at those meetings; whether the rule introduced almost a year ago banning blindside hits will be extended to all head shots or simply tweaked or if the concussion protocol for a player who suffers a hit to the head will be changed.

"I don't know what the answers are, I just know we have to look at every avenue to protect our athletes," Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley said Tuesday. "I think we have to look at all parts of the equipment, from the ice surface to helmets."

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However, like most of his fellow GMs, Dudley is just as passionate about not legislating the physical aspect of hockey out of the game. There will always be injuries, he says, because of the nature of the game.

"I go back and forth all the time on that," Dudley said. "That is an element of hockey that appeals to a great number of people, that war-like element.

"We can't have rules that eliminate that element. I feel strongly about that."

What the GMs have to do, Dudley says, is make the game as safe as possible within those parameters.

One area that will be considered is what immediate steps should be taken by a team's trainers and medical staff when a player is hit on the head during a game. This became the subject of some debate when Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was hit Jan. 1, returned to the game and then played again on Jan. 5, when he was hit on the head again. He has not played since due to a concussion.

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who is one of the league's strongest advocates in dealing with concussions and head hits, says a simple solution is not easy to find.

"It's a fine line there," he said. "The people who deal with this have to go on information they receive. They have to rely on what the players tell them.

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"This is not as simple as having an X-ray and knowing a person has a broken bone. But, of course, we're always looking at a right way to do this."

Equipment may get more study at the upcoming meetings than it has in the past. The GMs spent some time last year looking at a helmet touted by former player Mark Messier that is supposed to protect the head better. Dudley and Rutherford say the league has always studied equipment and they would like to see improvements in all of the equipment, not just helmets.

"I don't why all hockey players wouldn't wear the most protective helmets," Dudley said. "And I don't know why the manufacturers can't be encouraged to make them [better]

"I worry about skates, too. We just had two young players [sustain]broken feet. I don't know why, with the technology we have, we can't come up with a good skate. That protection, to me, is essential."

While rule 48 - which penalizes blindside hits to the head with major penalties and the possibility of suspensions - came under fire this season in the wake of a spate of concussions, most GMs think it is working. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently the league noticed more unintentional collisions this season that resulted in concussions.

"With rule 48, the thing I see is we have less blindside hits than we have in the past and we're not even one year into it," Rutherford said. "It's the same as anything. Any time we put a new rule in, the players adapt well."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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