Just as it took a season-ending hit to the knees of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener to alter NFL rules regarding low hits, could it be the injury of another Boston-area pro athlete that causes the NHL to enact rule changes regarding hits to the head?
On Sunday, Bruins center Marc Savard was on the receiving end of either an elbow or a shoulder, depending on whom you believe, from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke after Savard had released a shot, leaving himself in a vulnerable position in which he could not protect himself. Savard, who was removed from the Mellon Arena ice on a stretcher, said today that he blacked out for 15 to 20 seconds and the Bruins have diagnosed him with a concussion.
As it happens, NHL general managers are meeting in Florida and the subject of whether or how to change rules regarding hits to the head already sat on the agenda. At a previous meeting in November in Toronto, the general managers were unable to agree on a solution.
Could the timing of Cooke's unpenalized result in a rule change? Eventually, I believe the general managers will begin to look at Savard's injury in the same way that the NFL perceived rule changes it has made to protect quarterbacks and in regards to hits to the head. NHL GMs could debate the minutiae forever -- is the player on the receiving end of the hit at fault for having his head down, etc. -- but in the end I believe it will come down to a business decision.
NHL general managers are, after all, businessmen -- ask any player who has ever negotiated a contract with one -- and the newer strain in vogue in the NHL in terms of hiring GMs is that they tend to be younger or more educated or both. Boston's Peter Chiarelli attended Harvard and worked as an agent. Toronto's Brian Burke and Washington's George McPhee both have law degrees. Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher and Chicago's Stan Bowman, while their fathers were accomplished, if not legendary, old-school hockey figures, also hail from a younger generation who did not come up through the former player route in the way that former old-school Flyers general manager Bob Clarke and ex-Bruins man Harry Sinden did. Dallas' Joe Nieuwendyk played at Cornell. I could go on and on.
Eventually, I believe, the general managers will see that hits to the head are bad for business just as the NFL saw that protecting the knees (and heads, under prior rule changes) of one of its marquee stars like Brady was integral to its business. How many fans wanted to tune in to watch Matt Cassel instead of Brady on a Patriots' schedule that had many nationally televised games on it?
Savard might not be Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but he's one of the game's elite passers. In the four seasons prior to this one, only San Jose's Joe Thornton totaled more assists than Savard's 269. And his team is in a dogfight to make the playoffs. With 18 games left, Boston sits uncomfortably in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, two points up on the New York Rangers.
The Bruins also happen to be the NHL's lowest-scoring team at 2.31 points per game and Savard is their top offensive player. He is tied for third on the team in points with 33 because he has missed 23 games with two other injuries, a sprained knee and a broken foot. A two-time All-Star who has led Boston in points for the three prior seasons, he has averaged 0.80 points per game this season. That's more than Bruins' points leader Patrice Bergeron's 0.68 per game.
So if you were Chiarelli and Bruins coach Claude Julien -- who called Savard "our best player" after Sunday's game in calling for Cooke to be suspended -- how would you like your post-trade deadline chances to make the playoffs now that Chiarelli decided that the price to pay to add scoring was more than he wanted to pay? If the Bruins don't make it in large part because they can't score, what would owner Jeremy Jacobs think of the niceties of the hits-to-the-head debate as he's missing out on playoff revenue and his team once again yields the local media spotlight to the Celtics' postseason and Red Sox's regular season?
Just as the NHL saw the careers of premier stars like Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine diminished because of concussions, it does not need to lose anymore -- or any player for that matter. In the end, the issue involves player safety, which should create an outcry from the NHLPA.
At its essence, a body check's reason for being is to separate the man from the puck. That can still be accomplished without concussive hits to the head.