Friday, March 18, 2011

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

In the wake of announcements made by Gary Bettman about the seriousness that the NHL is going to start ascribing to head hits, this week the NHL Wheel of Justice assessed Dany Heatley 2 games for a deliberate (if not very injurious) elbow to the head of Steve Ott, Lecavalier was handed a game misconduct for a deliberate high-stick to PK Subban’s head, and even Bruin Brad Marchand is getting a suspension for an unpenalized play. Given that the GMs have just finished a meeting specifically addressing concussions and head hits (among other things), it’s worth asking whether the league has done enough to address what a lot of hockey minds seem to think is a key issue facing the game today?

Ken Dryden, Habs legend and one of the more intelligent players to ever grace the game, had a very smart piece in the Globe and Mail last Friday where he compares today’s perceptions of head hits to yesteryear’s perceptions of the health risks of smoking (i.e. none) and asks the question: "How could we be so stupid?" This is a valid point, and 20 or 30 years from now I think many doctors and family members will be asking the same question. It is all too easy to think of our players as gladiators and heroes, and that head trauma is just part of earning their stripes; part of the the job.

This certainly seems to be the outlook of the NHL executive committee, with very little about head hits and concussions coming of this week’s GM meeting. What we got was a very public 5-point "action plan" from Gary Bettman after the first day, which seemingly calmed sponsors by making it sound like the league is really going to do something. My feelings are obviously a little mixed on the subject. I certainly hate their data on the source of concussions – especially the category labelled "accidental hits." According to their classifications, the Chara hit would have been "accidental" simply because it wasn’t ruled as intentional (i.e. suspension-worthy) by the executive, and I don’t think this provides a very meaningful representation of the data.

One point I was very happy with, and that was the new protocol for determining what constituted a potential concussion threat and how the teams are expected to react. Clear rules are set for what scenario requires an intervention by the team doctor, and the player is removed to “a quiet place free from distraction” for examination with a validated acute concussion assessment tool. These are good steps, most of all because they are clear, logical, and will probably improve the prognosis for players with concussions dramatically. In fact, the only way that this could be better is if doctors had an obligation to share data from tests (maybe at season’s end) for use in evaluating how various rule or equipment changes affect concussion rates.

The rest of the list I’m less excited about. The first item is for Brendan Shanahan to lead an investigation into whether equipment size can be reduced without compromising safety. I think that the answer is a resounding “yes.” Equipment size has grown rather dramatically over the past three decades, mostly in the name of player safety. However, I wonder whether this has backfired somewhat; protection against higher forces seems to have encouraged harder hits, and likely leads to less forgiving impacts between players. It is important to remember that no equipment can protect a player completely from injury, however, and that changes made at a cultural level might be more effective in reducing concussions.

The second, related, item is the naming of Joe Nieuwendyk, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan to a committee investigating concussions and concussion-related issues. I have tremendous respect for all of these men as hockey players, but have less faith their ability to ask smart, testable questions about why concussions have been on the rise, and supervise the data collection and analysis required for this job. I’m biased, being a scientist, but I’d like to see people who do this kind of analysis for a living doing this work.

Which brings me to the next point, which is the hiring of an independent safety consulting team to tour the 30 NHL arenas to ensure they conform to the highest safety standards. My question is: how is this not a routine procedure for the league? The same could be said for the last point, which is penalizing teams as a whole for repeated offences by multiple players, though I can’t find anything saying 1) how many offences it takes to become a “repeat offender, or 2) how many “repeated offenders” would qualify as enough for a fine or other punishment.

What I hate most about this is that, unlike the new head injury protocol, it doesn’t seem to be clear, logical, or structured. It requires on-the-fly judgement calls that will lead to inconsistent rulings from referees and the disciplinary committee, which is why so many of us refer to them as the "Wheel of Justice." Inconsistency and judgement calls are ruining the punitive structure of the league both on the ice and in suspensions (although our friend Down Goes Brown seems to have the suspensions figured out). Decades of psychology research have shown that if punishment is not consistent, it doesn’t change behaviour, and that’s what we’re seeing on the ice.

My dad and I were talking about this last night, and came up with a good example: in the old days (for me this means the 1980s), 3 steps and leaving your feet meant a whistle and 2 minutes for charging. Now, charging is a rather abstract concept because, as Colin Campbell freely admits in his emails (remember those?), referees are more or less expected to be inconsistent by making calls based on the score, the number of previous penalties and the flow of the game. Bad judgement by the referee on some stickplay between Subban and Lacavalier in front of the net last night led to frustration and the eventual 2-handed blow to Subban’s face that saw Vinny ejected. It never should have gone that far, even if it meant 2 minutes for PK and none for Lacavalier.

I think overall the league has taken some steps in the right direction by introducing independent safety consultants, clear criteria for high-risk hits, and protocols for how deal with these hits. However, we’ve been taking a lot of steps in the wrong direction over the last couple years in terms of man-games lost to injury. Until the punitive structures are made more severe and consistent, I think we’ll continue to watch that stat rise.

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