CALGARY — On the eve of a new season, the Western Hockey League summoned its general managers and coaches to a meeting to address how the league intends to get tough on concussions and blows to the head.
It was an unusual step for the league to bring all management and coaches from its 22 teams at a time of year when they’re preoccupied with their training camps. The 2011-2012 season opens Sept. 22.
But a memo on this matter would not suffice, said WHL commissioner Ron Robison.
“We realize that it’s all about wins and losses, making the playoffs and having a championship-calibre team,” Robison said Tuesday. “That’s what coaches are charged with.
“We have one more challenge we have to face. We need a correction. We’ve acknowledged we have a problem and we have to address it. It’s in the best interests of the game to do that.”
Concussions are the hot topic in hockey right now, given Sidney Crosby’s absence from the NHL due to concussions he suffered last season and struggle of Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard with post-concussion symptoms.
The men at Tuesday’s meeting were informed of, and discussed at length, the WHL’s “Seven-Point Plan” adopted at their annual general meeting in June.
One of the seven points of that plan was Tuesday’s mandatory seminar held at an airport hotel to make sure all coaches and GMs know what is expected this season when it comes to on-ice violence the league deems excessive.
The other points are:
— adoption of new and tougher rules on lateral, blindside hits and late hits, as well as a minor penalty for “embellishment”, which is a player faking that he’s been hit in the head to draw a penalty.
— move severe suspensions for repeat offenders.
— an educational video for players on risks of concussions.
— soft cap elbow and shoulder pads.
— expanded research data on where concussions happen on the ice, what caused it and was there a penalty assessed.
— a review of all WHL arena facility safety standards.
Brandon Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon did not attend Tuesday’s seminar because his brother Brad died in a plane crash last week in Russia. The primary targets of the seminar were the coaches, who spend the most time with the players and often set the tone of a game.
“It was real important for us to get the coaches in here,” Kelowna Rockets owner and WHL chairman Bruce Hamilton said. “The coaches are the people who are with these kids 10 hours a day really.
“For the general managers to get the message is one thing, but the coaches are the people who are going to implement what we want to get done and that’s to make the game safer.”
Portland Winter Hawks coach Mike Johnston gave a presentation at the seminar on dishing out and taking checks.
“A lot of it comes down to teaching them about awareness, ” Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said. “Players should know how to position their bodies when hits are coming.
“Once they start understanding that a little bit more and once we’re consistent with our teaching I think in time, they’re going to know in certain situations ’is this where I should be? Is this a danger area on the ice?’ and I think if we follow up with some video and continue to stress the important issues, then I think they’ll change and change for the better.”
Fostering respect and not taking advantage of players in vulnerable positions were the common themes following Tuesday’s session.
“The days of one or two guys on the ice running around trying to take advantage of other players has got to end,” Hamilton said. “When somebody is in a vulnerable position, that’s the time to back off.
“We don’t want to take the speed and the contact out of the game. What we want to do is make it safer for these young men.”
Brandon Wheat Kings head coach Cory Clouston, who coached the NHL’s Ottawa Senators the last two and a half seasons, says he’s one of the lucky ones who hasn’t suffered any long-term symptoms from the “five or six” concussions he suffered during his playing career.
“There is a level of responsibility that I as a coach and they as players have to take,” Clouston said. “You want to make sure the game is still hard and still physical, but when a player is in a vulnerable position, you’ve got to make sure you do things a little bit differently, but also identifying if there is an injury.
“We have to understand there is difference between playing through the injury of a shoulder or a knee and the difference of a brain. They heal much differently. There’s a lot more long-term repercussions when you play through a concussion.”
The WHL performs baseline testing — measuring cognitive capacity — on all players when they enter the league and then every two years after that.
Players who repeatedly target other players’ heads will receiver stiffer suspensions, Robison said, although each case will be ruled on separately and there are no set amounts for first, second or third offences. Also, players previously had their suspension slate wiped clean after the season concluded, but no more.
Offences in previous seasons will be taken into account in disciplinary hearings, Robison said.
All three major junior leagues, including the Ontario and Quebec League, have adopted some form of policy on concussions and blows to the head for this season, including the removal of hard caps on shoulder and elbow pads.
Like the NHL, the WHL doesn’t want its marquee players sidelined with concussions because it hurts the product they’re trying to sell, said Hamilton.
“We’re businesses too,” he said. “We can’t afford to have our best players out. We can’t have senseless things going on.
“That’s got to end and the message comes from the coaches right from the start and that’s why we involved them today.”