The fight against the biggest issue in hockey is set to resume in a familiar setting.
Concussions will be on the agenda Monday as the NHL's general managers kick off three days of meetings at the Boca Raton Resort & Club on Florida's Atlantic coast. It's the third straight March the league's caretakers have convened at the oceanfront property to grapple with an injury issue that has affected a number of hockey's most valuable assets.
Even though the NHL isn't currently dealing with outcry over a specific incident -- the 2010 meetings came directly on the heels of Matt Cooke's devastating hit on Marc Savard -- the concussion issue remains top of mind.
The number of players to suffer the injury has increased this season and includes several all-stars: Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom, to name a few.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is nearing a return to the lineup after suffering what is believed to be a neck injury that followed the concussion problems he dealt with last season.
Armed with a body of evidence and statistics gathered by league doctors, the general managers will once again discuss ways to make the game safer. Of course, recent evidence suggests there's no single rule change that can even guarantee a reduction in the total number of concussions.
"There's nothing we can do that doesn't change the game fundamentally that's going to eliminate concussions in our game," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press earlier this season. "Bottom line is they're a fact of life in a contact sport -- not just ours -- and they continue to be a fact of life.
"As long as we understand the nature of these injuries and we're approaching it responsibly, which I would suggest we are, there's not a whole lot more we can do about it."
Changes have already been made to the rulebook. The GMs introduced rule 48 outlawing blindside hits to the head in 2010 before refining the wording around that rule and one covering boarding at last year's meeting. Brendan Shanahan was also handed a directive to be more strict when he took over the role of disciplinarian.
An interesting discussion expected to take place in Florida will surround the possible reintroduction of the red-line for two-line passes -- something that was originally removed by GMs as part of sweeping changes coming out of the 2004-05 lockout in a bid to speed up the game.
Now, with concern growing that increased speed has led to more injuries, the red-line could be reinstated, or at least reintroduced as part of a new type of rule.
"My opinion is that we should discuss it," said Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. "I think we've done a lot of different things to speed up the game. I think maybe looking at putting (the red-line) back in in some way, shape or form would help moderate the speed so to speak."
The GMs are also expected to talk about removing the trapezoid that prevents goaltenders from playing the puck in the corners. That's another rule that was introduced in 2005.
Among the other potential tweaks or changes expected to be discussed are hybrid icing, equipment modifications to shoulder pads and different formats for overtime. In many cases, these issues have been raised during breakout sessions at previous meetings -- a process that can lead to enough consensus being built to effect change.
Any rule change recommendation coming out of the meetings must be supported by at least 20 GMs before getting passed on to the competition committee (which features players and executives) for approval in June. From there, the board of governors needs to sign off on it before it comes into existence.
A year ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman kicked off the first day of the GM meetings by outlining a five-point plan to deal with the concussion issue. It saw a blue-ribbon panel created, the introduction of so-called "quiet room" evaluation as part of the league's concussion protocol and the elimination of seamless glass in every NHL arena.
Yet, despite all those measures, the GMs are returning to Florida 12 months on with still more work to do.
Notes: With the NHL's collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, the managers will be provided with an update on that process ... Shanahan's player safety department will also present video of dangerous incidents and trends from this season ... Longtime NHL coach and general manager Pat Quinn will be honoured for his contributions to the sport at a dinner hosted by Bettman on Monday night.
The Canadian Press