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Preventing Concussions In NHL Needs More Attention

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Brent Seabrook (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brent Seabrook (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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The NHL just signed a new 10-year TV deal worth $2 billion. To show his appreciation for all those who made it possible, Commissioner Gary Bettman instructed club officials to share the news with concussed players by holding up two fingers in front of their faces.

Too cavalier?

Maybe. But so is the way the league metes out justice come playoff time, especially as it relates to headhunting.

In what qualifies as the most outrageous decision so far – keeping in mind it’s only the first round – NHL chief justice Colin Campbell whiffed on the chance to suspend serial goon Raffi Torres of Vancouver for a vicious, blindside hit Sunday to the head of Chicago’s Brent Seabrook.

The case against Torres was a slam-dunk; not only that, the league already set a precedent by suspending him for nearly the exact same offense. Torres was playing his first game back after a four-game suspension for a similarly brutal hit on Edmonton rookie Jordan Eberle in the regular season.

Plus, his assault on Seabrook appeared to be a textbook example of what the league’s general managers had in mind when they drew up Rule 48 (Illegal Check to the Head) little more than a year ago to limit the wave of concussions sweeping across the sport.

But then Campbell got out his magnifying glass, reread the rule and remembered that what would constitute headhunting anywhere else on the ice – a blindside hit on a player who didn’t even have the puck – doesn’t apply behind the net.

That exception was obscure enough that when TSN’s Darren Dreger called nine NHL general managers to ask whether they thought Torres should be suspended, eight replied “yes.” Unlike Campbell, they didn’t bother to read the fine print.

Seabrook, the Blackhawks’ second-best defenseman, was held out of Tuesday’s game against the Canucks, which Chicago won 7-2 to stave off elimination. The hometown hero was center Dave Bolland, who was returning to the lineup after missing the last 17 games himself with – what else? – a concussion.

“There was a time when I didn’t think I was going to come back,” Bolland said after a career-best four-point night. “You never know when you’re going to get out of the headaches, the fuzziness. …

“It’s pretty dreadful. To go through this thing is pretty tough,” he added. “We’ve got to cut down (on head shots).”

Exactly how, and how much to cut down, remains the league’s evolving riddle. Several other leagues have already banned hits to the head, but the NHL is still so spooked about alienating its most macho fans that condition reports rarely provide specifics beyond “upper” and “lower” body injuries.

Yet the players know who’s hurting and exactly where. They also know it’s not only the refs who swallow their whistles when the postseason rolls around. Because playoff games make the cash registers ring louder, the league’s disciplinarians are more reluctant than usual to crack down and deprive a team of a player’s services more than is necessary.

On the other hand, we’ve already had Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan suspended two games for stomping on an opponent; and Los Angeles’ Jarret Stoll, Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz all suspended for one game each after varied attacks on the “upper body” of rivals.

The inconsistency in how the cases are handled has done more than embolden players. It’s led to speculation that goons aren’t just targeting the best players on opposing squads; they’re going after those who are talented AND have a history of concussions. Putting aside Ryan’s stomp, three of the four headhunting attempts were made against players who had been concussed before.

You might think the league would ramp up its disciplinary process to match the rising intensity its players bring to the postseason. Especially after these playoffs began with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the game’s biggest star and arguably it’s most exciting player, still struggling to recover from the effects of a concussion he sustained in January.

But you’d be wrong. As the studies pile up and league officials make a show of wringing their hands to demonstrate how concerned they are about concussions, don’t forget they still found plenty of time to turn their palms up and grab a fat check from NBC and Versus.

Here’s hoping that Bettman and Co. won’t have to rely on any of those concussed players to remember which pocket they stashed it in.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

Copyright 2011 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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