Commentary

We need to see real face of NHL change

Updated: March 10, 2010, 8:46 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Let us start with this premise: There is no group of men more passionate about the game of hockey than the NHL's 30 general managers.

They feel a deep and abiding responsibility to the game, and it's a responsibility that is not taken lightly. It partly explains why effecting change in the game is so difficult given the various passionately held views on issues such as blows to the head, which was the centerpiece of discussion during the GMs meetings held during the past couple of days in Boca Raton, Fla.

The other reason change is difficult: GMs, once considered the stewards of the game, are quite simply no longer in a position to impact the NHL directly. Which makes us wonder why we were hanging on their every word this week as they confronted the issue of how to keep their most important assets safe.

Because the real arbiter of change, the body that ultimately will determine whether a new rule to curb dangerous blows to the head proposed by the GMs on Wednesday becomes a reality next season, is the competition committee.

[+] EnlargeMarc Savard
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA hits to the head proposal was drafted by the NHL's 30 GMs, but the competition committee must sign off on it in June.

Heard of it? It's the bastard child of the NHL lockout, a body representing the game's stakeholders, including owners, GMs and players, that was negotiated into existence and essentially stripped the GMs of their previously unilateral ability to impose change as they saw fit.

That isn't to suggest the GMs' opinions don't carry any weight. They do. Multiple sources familiar with the process of change in the league told ESPN.com the GMs are a vital cog in the game's evolutionary machinery. As they should be given the vast breadth of knowledge and experience that those 30 general managers represent.

But those sources likewise agreed the perception that the GMs are still the power brokers they once were is misguided, and it is the competition committee that needs to become visible to fans and media alike.

There are general managers who are heard on the 10-person competition committee; Atlanta's Don Waddell and Nashville's David Poile are respected members of the GM community whose words carry significant weight. Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider rounds out the management/ownership side of the committee, while current player members include Ryan Miller, Mathieu Schneider, Jeff Halpern, Jason Spezza and Brian Campbell.

Poile and Waddell presumably will speak on behalf of the new proposal that would see players penalized for "lateral, back pressure or blindside" hits to an opponent when the head is targeted or is the principal point of impact. The new rule would allow referees to impose either a minor or major penalty depending on the severity of the hit and/or the injury resulting from the hit. Those incidents would result in a review by the league for potential supplementary discipline.

But despite media reports that may suggest that what the GMs have decided will become law, it is a suggestion only.

"We look forward to receiving and reviewing the general managers' proposal," NHLPA spokesperson Jonathan Weatherdon said in a statement. "Hits to the head, including blind-side hits are important issues facing the NHLPA membership. In order to appropriately address these issues, the NHLPA's competition committee members will thoroughly review this proposal and gather feedback from the membership prior to the committee's meeting this summer."

Should the members of the competition committee decide the rule needs to be tweaked, they will tweak it. If they decide it does not warrant discussion -- this almost certainly will not happen because players share the belief that a change is needed to protect them against predatory blows to the head -- the competition committee will put it aside.

That is its prerogative no matter how much it grates on some GMs. That's what happened this past summer, when the competition committee met to discuss, among other things, the GMs' desire to introduce a 10-minute misconduct penalty to discourage staged fights.

Remember how the GMs fretted and fumed over the issue at their meetings last March? Remember how the media duly recorded every pro and con, breathlessly reporting the league was going to wage war on the scourge that is the staged fight? The competition committee didn't even discuss the issue in June.

Now, to be fair, there is rarely such an obvious disconnect between what the GMs believe is important for the game and what the competition committee eventually sends up the ladder to the board of governors, who rubber-stamp what is put before them.

NHL officials insist that GMs ideally work in lockstep with the competition committee to reach a common good. And at least when the NHL Players' Association had a distinct leadership group, there was almost daily contact between its nonvoting member of the competition committee, Glenn Healy, and the league's nonvoting member, Colin Campbell. Both kept each other up to speed on how their various constituents felt about a myriad of issues. That dialogue has been stunted with Healy's resignation from the union in September and the fact that he was not replaced.

NHL officials also insist that recommendations from the general managers could be taken up by the board of governors regardless of what the competition committee decides, but the reality is it never happens and won't happen while the competition committee exists.

This must frustrate some general managers. The situation also suggests the media have misdirected their attention when it comes to these twice-annual gatherings of GMs. But that's hardly the general managers' fault.

Still, the dynamic suggests the NHL and the NHLPA have failed to properly put their best feet forward and put the cart (or horse) where it belongs. Why, for instance, is the competition committee a ghostly presence, making important decisions on the future of the game in a veritable vacuum? In part, it's because the group meets in the summer, when media and fans are consumed by the playoffs, awards, the NHL draft and the impending free-agency period.

It makes no sense. Why not have the competition committee meet in the full light of day, during the All-Star break or at the draft?

The NHL and the players should be showcasing this group, making it available to discuss the issues of change and how it wants to make the game better, safer and more attractive to fans. The members of the group should be front and center to discuss the process of change -- just as the GMs are now.

They are, after all, the true agents of change. They should be treated as such.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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