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No easy answers to NHL concussion issue

Montreal's Max Pacioretty is taken away on a

Montreal's Max Pacioretty is taken away on a stretcher after receiving a hit from Boston's Zdeno Chara that set off a massive controversy about hits to the head in the NHL. (Mar. 8, 2011) Credit: AP

David Backes is a physical player. He hits, he gets hit. For the star St. Louis Blues forward, hitting is as much a part of the game as goals and assists.

In the debate about hits to the head that's raging across the hockey landscape, Backes made sure to point out that NHL players have as big a role to play as the general managers who make the rules; as NHL hockey operations vice president Colin Campbell, the whipping boy for every frustrated fan and executive; and the owners, who preside over a sport that is played at an inherently unsafe speed no matter how much protection one wears.

Perhaps one of the things that's missing, as the concussions pile up, is respect.

"I have a ton more respect for a guy that hits me square on, drives through my shoulders and puts me on my ---- ," Backes said. "There are times when you have an opportunity to hit someone and they're not aware or ready for it, and that's the gray area. We may need to be policing ourselves a bit more than we have been."

The noise level has risen to a deafening tone this season, even though commissioner Gary Bettman correctly points out that concussions and other injuries from blindside hits and illegal checks are down. Unfortunately, diagnoses of head injuries still are on the rise, mostly because of better vigilance from players, coaches and medical staffs about the symptoms.

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, the league's marquee star, hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion suffered in the Winter Classic, the league's marquee regular-season event, against the Washington Capitals. Crosby returned to the ice for the first time Monday, practicing in full gear after missing 29 games.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara's hit on the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty last week, which left Pacioretty with a concussion and a fractured vertebra -- and Chara without a suspension -- has brought on even more frenzy. Air Canada is threatening to pull its sponsorship from the league and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson penned a letter to fans expressing his dismay about the hit.

As the league's GMs meet this week in Florida to try to strengthen the rules against head shots, interviews with coaches, executives and players show the difficulty in pinning down what, if anything, can be done to stem the concussion tide in the NHL.

Some players, coaches and executives take a simple tack: This is hockey. Hitting and fighting are part of the game. Some, like Rangers coach John Tortorella, believe that the threat of more physicality -- in the form of removing the instigator penalty for starting a fight -- would reduce the cheap-shot threat.

"Some of the rule changes have provided some people the chance to disrespect people," Tortorella said. "There still needs to be some sort of honor and honesty in our game . . . Players need to police themselves on the ice. Not the rules, not supplementary discipline and all that. That's where I think we've lost some honesty."

Taking it a step further, former Islanders winger Duane Sutter believes today's players put themselves at risk by trying to draw major penalties. "You see guys turning their backs on a guy coming at them, three or four feet from the boards," said Sutter, now the Calgary Flames' director of player personnel. "If you don't want to protect yourself, why should the league?"

Mathieu Schneider played 1,289 games in 23 seasons, retiring last year. He's a newly appointed special assistant to NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, filling a role not unlike what Brendan Shanahan is doing for the league as a longtime player who understands the game from many angles.

Schneider has an answer to those from the old school.

"You have to have played in the league after the lockout [of 2004-05] to understand how much faster the game has become," Schneider said. "With the obstruction rules in place, guys are flying. I tell my old teammates, 'You remember the playoff games of the early and mid-1990s?' That's the pace and intensity every night, in every arena, right now."

Schneider believes it's not just on the players to respect one another more by turning away from an opportunity to deliver a blind-side hit. The players association noted last week that the final six NHL arenas that have seamless glass, which has little to no flexibility, are removing that Plexiglas.

There also is what Schneider calls the "survival instinct."

"Players will do whatever it takes to stay in the league," Schneider said. "That means doing whatever your coach asks, whatever role you have to fill if you're a guy that's on the fringes of a roster. It's not all about what the players choose to do or don't do."

Which brings us to Trevor Gillies. Gillies, the 32-year-old Islanders enforcer, took a decade to make the NHL, and he knows what he needs to do to stay. His nine-game suspension for an elbow to the head of the Pittburgh Penguins' Eric Tangradi on Feb. 11, followed by another overzealous hit on the Minnesota Wild's Cal Clutterbuck in Gillies' first game back, which earned him his current 10-game suspension, has made Gillies a marked man.

Former Islanders GM-turned-television commentator Mike Milbury decried Gillies' presence in the league on a Versus broadcast.

"Trevor is family," Zenon Konopka of the Islanders said. "We're a family in here, and we don't throw guys out of our family."

Crosby voiced his feelings on head shots, even though Dave Steckel's hit on New Year's Day seemed to result from both players looking away, not just Crosby. And Crosby's wish to clean up the game -- along with his owner, Mario Lemieux -- ring a bit hollower because Matt Cooke, a serial head-shot offender, plays for the Penguins.

Cooke elbowed the Bruins' Marc Savard in the head last season without a suspension and did the same to the Rangers' Artem Anisimov. On Feb. 8, he hit the Blue Jackets' Fedor Tyutin from behind, earning a four-game ban and a reputation as the league's dirtiest player.

"It'd be great to see Crosby tell Cooke, 'Go out and agitate. But don't be dirty, because it makes us all look bad,' " Backes said. "No one wants to see a guy like Sid out. But when you have players on your team who cross that line, it's hard to take what someone says at full value."

Backes pointed out that the Islanders were fined $100,000 for their lack of control over players in that Feb. 11 game, and that perhaps team and coach fines are a way to keep the lid on disrespectful players.

"Maybe that's the way to de-incentivize guys, I don't know," Backes said. "We play a physical sport. It's hard to know what the right answer is."

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