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Bettman decides on new concussion protocol; will take effect next week

This Sept. 15, 2010, file photo shows NHL commissioner Gary Bettman during a news conference in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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This Sept. 15, 2010, file photo shows NHL commissioner Gary Bettman during a news conference in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Gary Bettman fired a pre-emptive strike on the opening day of meetings for NHL general managers, announcing a five-point plan to try to deal with the rise of concussions.

It was an unprecedented move for the commissioner at a time when his league is under pressure to act on the hot-button issue. The GMs have gathered here to examine concussions for three days before deciding if they want to propose a rule change, but Bettman wasn't content to wait.

"There are a series of steps that we have been working on from a league perspective to address the issue of player safety," he said Monday.

One of the key components of his plan is a change to the concussion protocol that will require players displaying symptoms to be given a baseline test by a doctor in a quiet location before returning to the ice. Until now, trainers were able to do an examination on the bench during a game.

That will be in place by the end of the week.

"We probably need a few days because we're going to need some conference calls with the physicians and the trainers to make sure they understand what to do," said Bettman. "But once we can fully implement it, which will be in the next few days, it will be in effect."

Bettman's plan also includes:

—Having league executive Brendan Shanahan continue working with NHLPA to expedite equipment modifications.

—Imposing fines on teams and coaches that have players who rack up a high number of suspensions.

—Retaining safety engineers to ensure all NHL arenas conform to standards, including the elimination of seamless glass by next season.

—Forming a special committee of Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Niuewendyk to continue looking at the concussion issue.

The announcement came the same day Sidney Crosby skated in Pittsburgh for the first time since Jan. 5. The Penguins captain has missed 29 games with a concussion and spent about 15 minutes on the ice at Consol Energy Center.

Under the new protocol, he probably wouldn't have been allowed to return to the ice after colliding with Washington's David Steckel late in the second period of the Winter Classic game on Jan. 1. Crosby appeared woozy at the time, but wasn't given a full baseline test.

He told reporters in Pittsburgh that he would be paying close attention to the GM meetings—and he's far from the only one. More than twice the amount of media that normally cover the event have descended on the Boca Beach Club this week.

"There's obviously got to be some clarity," said Crosby. "Everything's got to be looked at. It's a pretty fast game."

Unfortunately, clarity won't be easy to come by. The GMs received a presentation from the NHL's hockey operations staff on Monday that attempted to break down the complicated issue—showing video and data of plays that have caused concussions this season.

Of the approximately 80 concussions suffered by players in 2010-11, the NHL found that 44 per cent of those were caused by a legal hit. Another 26 per cent came on plays that were deemed accidental, 17 per cent were ruled to be the result of an illegal hit and eight per cent were suffered in fights.

The remaining five per cent couldn't be accounted for because they occurred on an undetected play.

One of the primary tasks the GMs will tackle on Tuesday and Wednesday is defining what exactly constitutes a legal and illegal hit. That's an area where a rule change could be proposed.

"My position is there should be no head hits," said Penguins GM Ray Shero. "That's the position of the Penguins, that's mine, and I brought it up today in our group."

It's a directive that was given to him by owner Mario Lemieux.

Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier is another man who travelled to Florida with a message from his boss. Owner Geoff Molson made his feelings on player safety clear in a press release last week and Gauthier came away from the first session of meetings confident that change was afoot.

"We will find some solutions," said Gauthier. "Based on the mood and the disposition of people today, I'm convinced that we can improve the game."

Bettman's decision to bring on safety engineers is in direct response to the neck and head injuries suffered by Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty last week. He smashed his head on a stanchion between the players' benches after being hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara.

The commissioner defended the league's decision not to fine or suspend Chara for that incident.

"I took a poll of the general managers and overwhelmingly they believe that the right decision was made in that case and that no supplemental discipline should have been imposed," said Bettman.

Consensus will be much tougher to find on the issue of head hits.

"There's no one single thing causing concussions," said Bettman. "There is no magic bullet to deal with this. I know that it's an emotional, intense subject, particularly for our fans. We get it. But dealing with this issue is not something you can do whimsically or emotionally.

"You really have to understand what's going on."

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