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Will Bettman's 5-point plan create the right incentives to prevent player injuries? | March | 2011 Articles

Will Bettman's 5-point plan create the right incentives to prevent player injuries?

Written by ChiBlackhawks on .

Not long after the French colonized Vietnam, they found they had to deal with a bit of a rat problem. So, enlisting the residents' help, they offered money in exchange for rat tails. You would think that would have lowered the rat population, but instead it went up. The reason? Some pretty clever Vietnamese decided to breed rats for easy money instead of trying to capture them off the streets.

It's a funny story, and a great example for a behavioral economics class on incentives (of which I'm no expert, let's get that clear; I do find it interesting), but not quite as humorous when you realize it applies to pretty much anytime you're trying to convince people to act the way you want them to.

Case in point: Coming off a week where two players got injured after hitting their heads on stanchions, and at least one more player was subject to a blindside hit to the head, the league's been hard at work developing action steps to handle this problem. Gary Bettman has proposed a five-point plan, which includes steps from changes to the equipment and rinks to protocol for assessing players to fines for organizations for repeat offenders. 

For those of you who don't yet know it, here are the proposed points (from Puck Daddy):

  1. Equipment - basically making sure the players' equipment can still protect them, but not do as much damage to other players
  2. Concussions - players showing symptoms will be evaluated and cleared to play by a team physician, and not simply a coach or a trainer
  3. Penalties for Enablers of Repeat Offenders - Clubs and probably coaches will be held responsible for the actions of repeat offenders. Lemieux has gone as far as suggesting exorbitant fines imposed on teams depending on the number of games a player is suspended.
  4. The Rink - Softening the arena up, making sure the glass in all arenas will switch over to Plexi, and consultation with safety engineers to further make changes as necessary
  5. Committee - an ongoing panel of four to work on these issues

The issue at hand, obviously, is player safety. But it's hard to convince me that the cause of the problem is the player's equipment or certain aspects of the rink.

Remember when Ovechkin pushed Brian Campbell into the boards last year, and Bruce Boudreau said the boards did the damage? Remember the mockery that descended upon him for his blatantly ridiculous statement? That's because no matter what you do, no matter how much you change the look and feel of an NHL arena, you're never going to take away the fact that the game is played on ice, which is somewhat of a hard surface depending on how humid it is where you're playing, with little blades on players' feet. What is the NHL going to do next time a player's face gets smashed onto the crossbar: take away the net from the game too? 

So as far as I'm concerned, points 1 and 4 are fringe areas of concern at best, but certainly not the most important steps to take. Point #5 is nice to have, but is really more of a token point to tack on to the plan to make it look nice and "complete".

I'm a fan of the concept behind point #2, but I do have some hesitations. I didn't even realize that teams didn't let their own physicians check players to make sure they're ready to play, and in fact I thought #2 originally referred to physicians associated with neither team, which is where you'd find the least conflict of interest. But never mind the fact that team physicians are on the team's payroll, and their interests may tie in with winning more than it would with players' health. Where this becomes even more interesting is during road games-- I read somewhere a while back that the Blackhawks are the first, and maybe one of very few teams, if not the only, team in the League to take their physician with them to away games. What happens when a road team's star player gets knocked down, and the home team's physician has to examine him?

And then there's point #3. It sounds great because it puts the onus on the people responsible for players' actions. What the punitive measures entail remains to be seen, but Lemieux has proposed a fine structure that, to me, can create more problems than it's worth.

My issue with it is that his suggested punishment (i.e., fines paid by club owners) is dependent on the number of suspensions doled out by the League, who are not only potentially beholden to club owners, but also notoriously inconsistent in meting out their own punishment. Will fining teams lead to fewer injuries, or just fewer suspensions?

Maybe what all these points merely provide is a place to start, but it looks like an awfully weak place to me. Certainly it would be worth looking into holding coaches and GMs accountable for their actions, but why is the league resisting a more obvious, more objective path: that of penalizing any hit or action causing a hit to the head, regardless of intent or damage? If players are made responsible for their sticks at all times, why can they not be held responsible for what part of another player's body they hit?

Will it make targeted players more reckless and leave their heads in more vulnerable positions in the hopes of drawing a penalty call? Maybe (but god, if a player does that, I'd question whether or not he was already suffering from a concussion or any other type of brain injury). Will it totally stop players from going after other players' heads? Maybe not. But make it a five-minute major, and it ties in directly with something the entire team will care about: the outcome of that particular game. Make it a blanket policy covering all kinds of hits to the head, and the referees will have a clearer idea of what to call, and leave less room for second-guessing. Make it a measure taken in addition to the hearings and potential suspensions already in place, and you can cover the most severe cases as well.

Will it lead to a so-called pansification of the league? Maybe, maybe not, but I'd rather take my chances with a softer league than with one whose plans of action only sort of touch on what truly causes players harm.

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