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Action towards change needed at GM level

Milan Lucic avoided suspension for his hit on Bufalo's Ryan Miller. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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Milan Lucic avoided suspension for his hit on Bufalo's Ryan Miller. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

A typical NHL GM meeting takes place in the beige, nondescript conference room bubble of an airport hotel. And the typical result of the six or seven hours of discussions on current issues usually feels just as artificial. Because nine times out of 10, the typical result isn’t any action at all, but a mere promise of more words.

So it was Tuesday in Toronto’s west end, where the league’s brass and GMs assembled to break bread and talk shop. As a ragtag gaggle of caffeine-addled media ham-n-eggers in the hallway stared at the conference room doors like Walking Dead zombies, hockey’s gatekeepers had a number of items on the day’s agenda to consider and debate, including divisional realignment and the effect of the 1-3-1 neutral-zone trap that caused headlines in a recent Tampa Bay/Philadelphia game.

Those items were discussed in the afternoon session. In the morning, the central topic was the protection of goaltenders - and although there were some passionate player-safety advocates among the convened, the end result was unsurprising: no immediate, tangible action would be taken; the situation would be monitored and revisited in the months and seasons ahead.

There’s something to be said for not making knee-jerk reactions from season to season, but when the answer to any issue is always “let’s talk about it,” that becomes a kind of knee-jerk reaction as well. Sooner or later, there has to be a situation grave enough to merit immediate action.

You would think a league as allegedly interested in player safety would see the protection of some of the game’s biggest stars - and certainly, some of the players most important to their individual teams - as just such a situation. But this is the NHL, where change is effected at a tortoise-like rate.

“When (goalies are) out on the open ice, they’re going to be protected,” St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong said during a lunch break, echoing the standard line. “But we do want continued play in front of the net.”

In other words: away we go with the status quo. In still other words, there will be no mid-season rule re-adjustment, the way the NFL did in 2010 when it responded to a series of egregious on-field hits with what league vice-president of football operations Ray Anderson called “a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots.”

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The NHL’s GM meetings weren’t completely filled with status quo supporters. Sabres architect Darcy Regier, whose team lost goalie Ryan Miller to a concussion on a Milan Lucic hit that sparked the goalie protection debate, was one such dissenter. So was GM Ray Shero, he of the still-Sidney-Crosby-less Penguins.

“Several of the GMs brought up the fact that there’s only 60 goaltenders in the league,” Shero said. “That’s going to be the message to our team: goalies are not fair game. If a goalie is going to play the puck outside the crease, you have to be pretty careful.”

Shero expected the issue would be picked up again at the spring GM meetings in March. But he sounded like someone who never wanted to see something like the Lucic/Miller hit happen ever again.

“Usually, (a goalie hit) is in and around the crease or they’re playing the puck and there’s incidental contact,” Shero said. “GMs are looking at (Lucic’s hit) and saying, ‘OK, if we let this go on, what are we doing?’ It’s one of those things the league always talks about at these meetings - the league evolves, you’ve got to change, and player safety is important.”

The hockey world needs more Ray Shero-types in power. But the key phrase in his last quote, the one that truly sums up the essence of these hotel dalliances, is “the league always talks.” If actions speak louder than words, the NHL’s GM meetings are as soundless as a sphinx.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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