- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BOCA RATON, Fla. -- If the message heading into these crucial NHL general managers meetings was "the sky is falling," you have to credit commissioner Gary Bettman for moving decisively to put the NHL sky back in its place.
In a pre-emptive strike Monday to quiet the recent tumult surrounding the game, Bettman announced a series of changes aimed at making the game safer and teams more accountable for their players.
Bettman's five-point plan came at the end of the first day of the GMs' annual three-day gathering and was a stark departure from previous meetings where news, if any, was generally revealed only as the meetings broke up.
But these are not ordinary times for the NHL.
The game's best player, Sidney Crosby, has been out since January with a concussion and skated for the first time Monday morning in Pittsburgh. He still has no timetable for his return.
Crosby is but one of a number of high-profile players who have been felled by concussions this season. Last week, Boston captain Zdeno Chara escaped suspension after he checked Montreal forward Max Pacioretty into a stanchion at the Bell Centre in Montreal. The incident prompted howls of disapproval from business leaders, politicians, the media and fans.
Several owners, including Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, have publicly scolded the league for its handling of reckless play in recent weeks.
So, it was not surprising to see more than twice the number of journalists who normally cover the spring meetings descend on Boca Raton looking for signs of change.
They didn't have to wait long.
Bettman announced that within a week or so, as soon as conference calls can bring NHL trainers and doctors up to speed, the league will introduce new concussion protocols for players injured during games. A player will have to leave the bench and go to a quiet area, presumably the dressing room, where a doctor will assess him before he can return to action.
"We will monitor that it is being complied with, and if it is not, appropriate sanctions will be coming," Bettman said.
In recent weeks, we have seen players remain in games even though they have been rocked by hits that left them reeling.
Now, that is unlikely to happen.
"Some players want to come back and play, and other guys are not sure and the trainers aren't sure. You never know. It's not like an X-ray on a broken leg," Florida GM Dale Tallon said. "The sooner you take care of it, the longer you have him in the lineup. Sometimes you put him back quicker, and as a result, you lose him for a longer period of time. I think it behooves us to make sure that it's done right way."
One has to wonder whether Crosby's situation would have turned out differently had this protocol been in effect earlier in the season. Crosby appeared dazed after a collision with Washington forward David Steckel near the end of the second period of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 in Pittsburgh but played in the third. He played in the team's next game against Tampa Bay and was hit into the end boards by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, perhaps exacerbating the issue.
"That's going to be good," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said of the new guidelines. "You see this around the league. A guy goes back into the game or plays the next game or three or four more games, and they say they haven't felt right for four games. I'm a super parent, I guess, because my son [Christopher] had a concussion about a month ago, and I let him play seven more games and practice five more times. We didn't know.
"As I've said before, when you're talking about protocol for concussions, we're evolving as a league," Shero added. "We've made strides since last year, and we'll continue to make strides."
Bettman also announced that teams will be held culpable for the actions of their players with sanctions being levied against teams whose players are consistently subject to supplemental discipline. The commissioner said the team, and perhaps coaches, will be subject to fines. (Lemieux released a statement Monday saying he favors team fines.)
And in light of the Chara hit on Pacioretty, Bettman said the league will contract a safety engineer to look at the playing area in NHL arenas "and see what we can do to soften it up."
The league also will compel six NHL teams that don't currently have Plexiglas (Montreal, Calgary, Colorado, Phoenix, Nashville and Minnesota) to switch to the more forgiving material, a move that drew praise from NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.
"This is a positive development, and the league and the NHLPA will continue to monitor all boards and glass to determine if further changes are required," Fehr said in a statement. "In regards to the other announcements coming out of the GMs meetings today, we welcome these steps and look forward to discussing these and other issues with the NHL to provide a safer working environment for the players."
The final two points Bettman announced involved equipment and a new committee to work with the players' association on safety issues moving forward.
"Brendan Shanahan will continue to lead the effort with the players' association to see what we can do to get equipment, perhaps a little smaller," Bettman said. "We don't want to jeopardize player protection, but we want to make sure equipment isn't too large and in a position ... where the hits [can do more damage]."
The committee will be made up of two GMs who are recently retired from the game, Joe Nieuwendyk of Dallas and Steve Yzerman of Tampa. They will work with Shanahan and Rob Blake, who recently joined the NHL's front office.
"If there is a common thread among the four of those people, it is, in addition to now being senior NHL or club officials, they are Hall of Fame-eligible, quality players that have played the game in the rules coming back from the work stoppage," Bettman said.
The five-point plan in and of itself will not remove the cloud that has been hanging over the NHL in regard to player safety. The hard work still confronts the NHL GMs here as they wrestle with the rising number of concussions and what should and should not be allowed when it comes to physical play.
But on a day that began with many questions, at least some were answered.
And that's a start.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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