Dean Lombardi remembers a time, back in 2007 or so, when one of the items on the NHL general managers agenda covered off arena infrastructure. A couple of players had been injured after being checked into an open bench door. Already, there were concerns about stanchions and seamless glass and yet, when the matter came up for discussion at the semi-annual GMs' gathering, it was just one item on a long laundry list of issues that they needed to plow through. Ultimately, nothing was ever done.
According to Lombardi, the Los Angeles Kings' general manager, that is one of the major changes in the way the GMs' meetings now operate. The agenda is smaller and the focus is narrower, as a result, the opportunity for meaningful change is far greater.
"The problem we've had at the GMs' meetings historically is that we go in there with 30 items on the agenda - and if you've got 30 people in a room, it just bogs down; and then it becomes a race, a track meet, to get through the agenda," said Lombardi. "That's one of the things we're getting better at. That's what I liked about what we did with the head hits. Gary (Bettman) was adamant. He said, 'we're going to small committees and we're going to focus on this.'
"Let's do one thing right instead of doing 30 things half-assed."
A valid goal, to be sure. Lombardi's reference was to the fact that last March, when the GMs assembled, they took the unprecedented step of changing a rule mid-season to address blindside hits to the head. That rule - 48 - has resulted in multiple suspensions this season, even though the rate of diagnosed concussions is still up year over year.
The possibility of amending the rule even further is on the agenda this time, but Lombardi suggests that GMs will be cautious in taking the next step, which would involve penalizing all hits to the head. A significant package of concussion information has been distributed to the GMs, and according to Lombardi, the findings were not what you might expect.
"The thing I find interesting is the science of it," said Lombardi, who lost one of his star players, defenceman Drew Doughty, to a concussion earlier in the season following an un-penalized, blind side hit to the head from the Carolina Hurricanes' Erik Cole.
"A lot of these head injuries, the one on (Sidney) Crosby, the one on Doughty, aren't a result of the big hits. It's not a function of the shoulder hitting the head. It's because of the neck snapping back - or getting hit right below the jaw, like Doughty did.
"We touched on this. They had some doctors up there. I was interested in looking at the cures for this. For instance, we put so much focus on training players and in football, what they found was, a lot of the problems were the result of the destabilized neck. So why wouldn't we focus on that? Maybe we should get our athletes training to stabilize their necks so it doesn't whip back when it gets hit.
"Same thing with the boxer punch. Doughty had a history of chewing on that mouthguard instead of wearing it. So ... the thing I find most interesting, a lot of this is not as it looks. It's not a guy taking a punch to the head. It's the ancillary things. It doesn't take a major hit (to cause a concussion)."
Even if the GMs do not move any further on the head-shot issue, Lombardi believes that there could well be recommendations to enhance arena safety in the aftermath of the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty which left the latter with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebrae in his neck. Chara, the Boston Bruins' defenceman, injured Pacioretty, the Montreal Canadiens' forward, by riding him into the protruding stanchion by the Bell Centre players' benches. Interestingly, the same thing happened to Doughty last week, although he was not injured on the play.
Lombardi says that he spoke to an engineer about altering the stanchions and was told that the fix is not difficult.
"It's not just the padding," he said. "The padding isn't going to do enough. But there's a way to do it where, if you round (the stanchion) at the point of contact, there's less surface to hit and you would roll right off it.
"I would definitely be in favour of that. That's a no-brainer for me. Given the speed of the game, to me it's no different than making guys wear helmets. Come on, we have to do something here - with the doors and everything - because these are dangerous. I remember seeing one about three years ago. A guy doesn't see it coming; and he's going 100 miles an hour and it's like running into a brick wall."