Big Issues, Small Answers

While little in the way of breaking news came out of yesterday’s annual preseason media conference call featuring Gary Bettman and the NHL Hockey Operations Department, many of the predictably cautious answers they provided help crystallize how the league wants those who follow and those who cover the game to think about some big issues, including the chances for an outdoor game in Montreal.

The new rule outlawing blindside hits to the head was, not surprisingly, a big topic and to those would challenge this “man’s game,” who (like The National Post’s Bruce Arthur) feel the new rule does not go far enough, that all hits to the head should be banned, Hockey Ops VP Colin Campbell deferred to the judgment of the GM’s.

That group proposed the rule after four years of discussing the issue but taking no action and they remain convinced that anything stronger in the way of limiting head checks will inhibit the physical quality of NHL hockey.

wanted to preserve hitting in the NHL,” Campbell said. “
Hockey is a
hitting game. Like saves, goals, other things in the game, it’s part of
the entertainment aspect and part of the game of hockey. Our managers
were sensitive about removing hitting altogether.”

While caution rules many of his pronouncements, Bettman was quick to spin a shinny halo around the league’s head when he added, “I think
the issue isn’t what we didn’t do in this rule change; it’s really about
looking at the fundamental and dramatic change we did do. As with any
big rule change, you’ve got to see how it’s going to play out. I believe
and I know the managers believe this was the absolute right
step. Frankly, anything else at this point in time, anything broader,
would have been an overreaction.”

Campbell mentioned that the GM’s making a rule change during the season was something they never had done before, underscoring the proactive stance they felt they adopted.

What made them
change their minds on this issue? In addition to hits like the infamous Mike Richards check on David Booth, Campbell said, “One of the
aspects that really drove the managers to make this decision was the
fact that 50% of our concussions in the NHL were delivered from the
side, call it ‘blindside’ for lack of a better term. Our managers felt
by getting rid of this particular hit, the blindside hit, when the
shoulder hit the head, would essentially reduce concussions in the game.”

If they’re right and if the rule is enforced, it stands to reason we could see a decrease in concussions this season, at which time the league and GMs can properly take credit for their delayed response.

Both Campbell and Bettman expressed concern that players — specifically Boston’s Marc Savard and Philly’s Ian Laperriere — have stated they came back too early from concussions last year. Laperriere admitted he concealed symptoms from the club and doctors so he could return for the Flyers run to the Stanley Cup final.

players aren’t going to be candid with physicians about what their
current condition is, that’s a certain problem,” the commissioner said. “I’m not sure exactly,
and we’re going to have to talk to the doctors, how to deal with it.”

We have a
general managers meeting scheduled in November. This is one of the
topics we have to address again,”
Campbell said.

Kay Whitmore, the former NHL goalie who enforces the new regulations on goaltender equipment responded to a query on whether he noticed that the shorter goal pads had an effect on netminders in the preseason. Even though preseason isn’t the best time to judge that, Whitmore ventured, “Watching
some games, you see a few sneak in, you wonder if that’s what it was.”

The new regulations state that the pads cannot be longer than 55% of the distance between the knee and the pelvis, and Whitmore said that maybe it could be 50% but he’s allowing the extra 5% to prevent injury to the kneecap.

Extra long pads have pretty much became de rigueur for most in the butterfly era, when goalies spread their legs post to post and the tops of the pads cover up the five hole. “We
thought the pads were something that got out of proportion maybe five
years ago,” Whitmore said.

Well, it was more like 10 years, maybe even 12, but who’s counting?

On other topics, Bettman was asked about the chances for a Heritage Classic game in Montreal, something which Geoff Molson has said he would like to see. Bettman went way, way out on the limb and replied, “I
know of Montreal’s interest. They are one of the number of clubs that
haven’t yet had the outdoor game to host. We do these a year at a
time. We have two outdoor games this year, obviously the one in
Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day and February 20th in Calgary. We’ll take it
from there, but we are aware of the interest.”

He was also asked about expansion plans in light of the blue garbed hordes who marched on the Plains of Abraham last Saturday. Bettman scooped up that ground ball easily, answering, “I think as everybody knows, there is no
current plan to expand. We continue to do everything possible to avoid
aware of the fact that 60,000 people in Québec City came out in support
really of a new arena. 

“We have never doubted the passion for our game in
Québec City. We know there are great fans and great interest.
any discussion, any possibility of a team going back to Québec City
depends on the possibility of a new arena. That’s something that’s not
within our control.”

When it came to the salary cap, however, and the roster upheaval the Blackhawks underwent this summer to stay under it, Bettman’s stock answer sounded more lawyerly than frank.

There’s no doubt the Blackhawks overpaid some players in their pursuit of the Cup and wanted to lock up their young core for the future, and these things put them over the limit. But the commissioner’s standard defense of the salary cap system — that it promotes competitive balance when, in truth, its primary function is to provide the owners with cost certainty — really needs some refining.

Bettman spoke of how the cap system is in place so that “all
teams can be competitive, can afford to be competitive…
the final analysis, under this system, everybody has a shot. Our fans,
no matter what team they root for, know their team has a shot to make
the playoffs and maybe win it all which is perhaps why in the last five
seasons all but two clubs have made the playoffs.”

Wonder if the fans on Long Island, Eastern Florida, Minnesota and Columbus honestly think their teams have a shot to make the playoffs and maybe win it all this year.

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