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THN at the All-Star Game: Head shot ban not on NHL's agenda

St. Louis' Vladimir Sobotka hits Anaheim's Jason Blake. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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St. Louis' Vladimir Sobotka hits Anaheim's Jason Blake. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

RALEIGH, N.C. – Well, at least we have a point of reference now. There is absolutely no point in even discussing an outright ban on head shots in the NHL because there is no appetite to do so at any level of the game.

So expect the concussions to keep coming. Perhaps it’s a natural byproduct of a game that is faster than ever played by players who are bigger and stronger than ever. It could be that the focus on concussions has led to increased awareness and more transparency. Perhaps we all have to learn to live with the fact that there are going to be concussions in a league where there are 1,230 games and more than 50,000 hits in a season.

Whatever the case, it’s clear the players think enough is being done, the GMs certainly think enough is being done and, most importantly, so do the people who sign the paychecks. The board of governors made it clear Saturday that it will continue to defer to the GMs on this issue and we all know how they feel about it. Whether you think they’re right or wrong, they’re petrified of going too far and taking the vital element of physicality out of the game.

But you’d think the people who are paying millions of dollars to players who are sitting on the sidelines might think differently. Nobody is naive enough to think the owners really care about the health and safety of the players, or that there could be a bunch of hockey stars walking around with dementia in 30 years, but you might be inclined to think their attitude would change when these guys are viewed as company assets.

“I think it’s a fair question and a good question,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I can’t say that we’ve seen that. Everyone is concerned about head injuries, but I can’t say that it’s ever come down to a pure economic analysis.”

Which is bad news for anyone looking for more stringency on this issue, because, as we all know, nothing is more important in the NHL than economics.

In fact, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out in his annual all-star state of the union address that the league’s concussion working group revealed the biggest increase in instances of concussions and in man-games lost this season is from accidental or inadvertent contact. Since the implementation of Rule 48, which bans blindside and deliberate hits to the head, last March, the league has seen a decrease in concussions and man-games lost resulting from blindside hits to the head. But there has been an increase in concussions from hits to the body that have resulted in the head having secondary contact with the boards, glass or ice. Concussions resulting from fights have increased.

Bettman said concussions from inadvertent collisions has more than doubled from year to year, which certainly speaks to the speed issue in the game.

Bettman loves to talk about the danger of the league having knee-jerk reactions to a hot-button issue, but that’s exactly what it did last season when it went against all conventional logic by enacting the head-shot rule in the middle of the season.

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“It’s easy to say the league needs to do X, Y and Z on concussions,” Bettman said. “It’s not that simple. We’ve put in a lot of effort on this subject and we know it’s important, but we need to be very professional, smart, thorough in dealing with it. It’s not susceptible to a snap judgment. Having said that, that’s the process we used last year when we enacted Rule 48. That appears to be working.”

Bettman also touched on several of the many ownership fires that he spends the bulk of his time putting out. Of note, he said the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes is on track and that a sale of public bonds to raise $100 million, which will go directly from new owner Matthew Hulsizer to the league, is still alive despite reports to the contrary. The league had set a deal of Dec. 31 to have the issue resolved before it would explore moving the team. That is not happening now, but Bettman acknowledged it’s still a very real option.

All of which means the city of Winnipeg should be prepared to continue to be jerked around and used as a pawn for the foreseeable future.

“We’ll hang in there as long as it makes sense, as long as we can,” Bettman said. “But time is getting short, make no mistake about that. This is not something that is of infinite duration. I have tried to be as careful as I could be not to raise expectations in Winnipeg. Everybody knows my view on that. If we have to move a club, it would be good to go back to a place that we were once in that has a different situation vis-à-vis building and ownership.”

Bettman also knows that Quebec City is working toward building a new arena and will lobby vociferously for an NHL team. There are those in ownership circles who are convinced Quebec City’s chances of getting a team are slim even with a new building and Bettman was quick to not raise hopes.

“In the conversations that I’ve had with a variety of people, including the mayor and the premier, we have said, ‘We’re not planning on expanding, we’re not planning on relocation, so we cannot promise you a franchise,’ ” Bettman said. “We don’t want people building a building on our account expecting there’s going to be a franchise, because we’re not in the position to promise one right now.”

THN will have files from Raleigh, N.C., throughout all-star weekend.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear every Monday throughout the season.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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