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The Broken, Never Fixed Department of Player Safety

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The NHL did not suspend one player before this week, when they suspended two players. One was for fighting. There should have been more suspensions already.

Chris Pronger: well known to DoPS and a victim of a concussion
Chris Pronger: well known to DoPS and a victim of a concussion
Jim McIsaac

March 8, 2011. That was the day that they NHL (allegedly) got serious on concussions. That was the day that a play so unnerving happened that they realized they had to act once the Board of Governors meetings happened. Allegedly. They said. They instituted the biggest joke in the NHL since started fining players a pittance for their misdeeds. They instituted The Quiet Room. Later that year, they announced that Brendan Shanahan would be taking over Colin Campbell's job and would be creating a new department called the Department of Player Safety. There was a new blindside rule (Rule 48). The NHL was acting like they gave a damn about player safety and they did...for 10 minutes.

Those 10 minutes were glorious. Shanahan went out and suspended guys for long periods of time because their actions were illegal and put fellow players safety at risk. And then James Wisniewski was suspended for 8 games after committing a headshot. The suspension was much debated because Wisniewski was a newly signed player to a big contract and Shanahan still suspended him for a long time. That was the last long suspension. The complaints won out. General Managers, who were initially supportive of Shanahan turned on him as soon as they saw how tough he would be to change the NHL for the better. And now the NHL may be worse off than before.

Let's break for a moment and talk about concussions a bit. This, from fellow editor Travis Hrubeniuk, explains them well.

So a concussion is the rapid acceleration and deceleration of the brain. Rotation can also be a factor. The symptoms of a concussion can take a while to show up. Symptoms like headaches, sensitivity to light and sound, difficulty concentrating etc. may not show up the night of the hit. They may not show up the next day. That does not mean that a concussion never happened, it just means that the symptoms arrived slowly or were not self-reported quickly because the player thought they had "just a headache". Therein lies the problem with the medical side of the problem. Therein lies the side that is harder to change.

Back to the newly formed Department of Player Safety (DoPS). As quickly as they tried to change the culture of the NHL, the GMs decided to kick up a fuss and not let them do their job. DoPS power was stripped. Once again, the GMs were controlling the players' safety and the usual s***-show that is the NHL suspension model resumed. This time, there was no system overhaul to save them, no white knight to coronate before he presided over one suspension. Shanahan became the fall guy after he tried to do his job. His hands were tied and he could not do what it initially looked like he wanted to do. No one will ever know Shanahan's master plan.

Shanahan resigned. He is now the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, evaluating stuff. Stephane Quintal is now the head of DoPS. There is still the perverse nature of the NHL to believe that an aggressor needs to have a prior record to be suspended. The disconnect in the logic is amazing because to get a prior record, someone has to suspend the player in the first place. But they cannot suspend a player with no prior record. Make sense? Nope, because the logic is you have to be suspended once to get suspended again, but you cannot be suspended if you have not been suspended before. At least, it seems that way. I think. It hurts my brain to try and figure this out.

The thing is, the NHL has the power to change the culture that it presides over. The NHL has the power to suspend hits from behind, hits to the head, and late hits really tightly. They can adopt a zero tolerance for these hits and cut them out of the game fast. 5 games for the first offence; 10 games for the second; 20 games for the third. Really tough penalties that hurt both the team and the player. It won't happen because it would mean doing something about the problem. One can dream though.

The other institutional change that needs to happen is with concussions. Like I said earlier, concussion symptoms can take a while to manifest. NHL teams value each game and the two points that come with them. They may be the worst people to manage the players' health in a game. The concussion protocol is soft. The Quiet Room is a mandatory 15 minute break to see if the player is showing signs of a concussion. If he is not, he is allowed to return to the game. Never mind that symptoms can show up a day or more later. The NHL can implement a rule that deems any hit to the head means the player is done for the game and that an independent neurologist has to evaluate them before they are cleared to play again. Harsh, but concussions are not forgiving creatures.

The NHL once had an opportunity to change their ways. Instead, they chose to listen to crying GMs and decided that appeasing the masses was more important than protecting players' long-term health. This decision could one day backfire. Until then, everyone can watch with their eyes peeled, hoping to not see another suspension worthy hit pass without a suspension and another player leave the game a shell of who they once were because of concussions.