Jason Brough

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2007 file photo, Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano, right, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wait for  a news conference to begin announcing a New Year's day hockey game in Orchard Park, N.Y.  During the 2006-07 season, a concussion sustained by Sabres co-captain Chris Drury — as a result of a blindside check by Ottawa's Chris Neil — placed hits to the head at the forefront of the NHL agenda. It began with then-Sabres owner Tom Golisano's letter urging NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to re-examine the rules after the league informed Buffalo that Neil's hit was legal. (AP Photo/Don Heupel, File)
AP

Former Sabres owner feels vindicated in helping NHL police hits to head

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Upon reflection, former Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano is pleased knowing the public stink he raised over hits to the head have played a role in cleaning up the NHL game nearly a decade later.

That it took so long for the league to take action is another matter.

“I do have a feeling of vindication,” Golisano told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I feel real good about it. I feel it’s a contribution that at least I helped with.”

Golisano helped push the issue of blindside checks to the forefront of the NHL agenda during the 2006-07 season. He went public in releasing a letter to Gary Bettman, urging the NHL commissioner to re-examine league rules in a bid to outlaw blindside hits.

The letter was prompted after the league informed the Sabres that Ottawa forward Chris Neil would not be disciplined for a hit that led to Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury sustaining a concussion and deep cut across his face. Drury had just released a shot in the Senators zone, when Neil drove in from the right side and used his shoulder to catch an unsuspecting Drury across the jaw.

“There is nothing manly about hitting a player that you can’t see,” Golisano wrote. “There is nothing good to come of a policy that allows exciting, skilled players to be targets for what I believe to be predatory play.”

Concerns were raised further during the 2007 Stanley Cup final, when Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger was suspended for one game after elbowing Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the head.

Golisano’s letter became a prime topic of discussion for the league’s competition committee on June 15, according to meeting minutes that were among hundreds of documents unsealed last week as evidence in the class-action concussion lawsuit filed against the NHL by former players.

“Gary Bettman states that the starting point for the discussion needs to be: Is there a problem? How do we define the problem? Do we want to do anything about this problem?” the minutes read.

Rangers forward and future NHL department of player safety chief Brendan Shanahan is quoted saying the league “should come down hard on players through supplementary discipline when they hit `dirty.”‘ NHL Players’ Association representative Stu Grimson said Neil’s hit was difficult to assess because Drury was not “unfairly vulnerable” after he had just taken a shot.

The minutes cite a consensus being reached, suggesting the rule should address whether a hit was late, the player struck was “unfairly vulnerable,” and whether the hitter stalked his opponent and had a prior history of illegal checks.

All these points became part of “Rule 48: Illegal Check to the Head,” introduced to the rulebook for the 2010-11 season.

It took the league three years to put it in writing.

“It’s strange that it took so long,” said Golisano, who also raised concerns at the league’s board of governors meeting in 2007. “That’s too bad, but I guess we can look back at it and say, `At least they did it now.”‘

Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff says there have been discussions regarding several gray areas to what’s deemed an illegal check to the head after Jets forward Bryan Little was sidelined by a season-ending back injury in February. Little sustained a compression fracture to his vertebrae when he dropped his head briefly and was struck by Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman in the neutral zone.

“It’s a fine line,” Cheveldayoff said.

Dr. John Leddy, a University at Buffalo clinical professor of orthopedics, hesitates in faulting the NHL for being slow to react.

“Could it have happened faster? Well, maybe,” Leddy said. “But I don’t think people should be criticized 10 and 20 and 30 years ago for treating concussions differently back then because nobody really knew what concussions were or how serious they were.”

Leddy received funding assistance from the Sabres on concussion research because of his work spurring Buffalo center Tim Connolly’s recovery from head and neck injuries in 2007.

More than 100 former players have joined the class-action lawsuit alleging the NHL had the resources to better prevent head trauma, failed to properly warn players of such risks and promoted violent play that led to their injuries.

Gretzky laments the ‘grinding game’ that the NHL has become

Wayne Gretzky
AP
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Last week, we wrote about the possibility that the NHL could have no 100-point man or 50-goal scorer this season.

And then Patrick Kane went wild, piling up eight points in three games to get to 102.

Alex Ovechkin could still reach 50 goals, too. He’s got 47 with three games to go.

But their totals will be nothing compared to the numbers Wayne Gretzky used to amass with the Oilers. In 1981-82, he scored 92 goals and 212 points. In 1985-86, it was 163 assists and 215 points.

How times have changed.

In an interview with the New York Times, the Great One lamented the “grinding game” that he sees today in the NHL.

“When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score,'” he said. “Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots. I mean, my goodness, I don’t think I ever blocked a shot, and I killed penalties every single game. I thought goaltenders were paid to block shots, not forwards. It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general.”

Of course, it’s hard to blame NHL coaches for coaching the way they do today. The evidence clearly shows that defense wins championships, and that’s what coaches are paid to do — win. Go back and watch some hockey from the 1980s and you’ll regularly see defensive lapses that would get players benched in 2016.

And for the record, it wasn’t all beautiful run-and-gun hockey back in the ’80s. Often it was just plain sloppy, full of hooking and holding and slashing. Compared to today, the players in Gretzky’s era weren’t as fast, they weren’t as strong, and they sure weren’t as fit.

But Gretzky’s words have already struck a chord with many, and that’s something the NHL may want to investigate further.

AHL announces all-rookie team, and there are some interesting names on it

2015 NHL Draft - Round One
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The AHL announced its 2015-16 All-Rookie Team today, and here it is:

Goalie: Juuse Saros, Milwaukee (Nashville)
Defenseman: Brandon Montour, San Diego (Anaheim)
Defenseman: Robbie Russo, Grand Rapids (Detroit)
Forward: Austin Czarnik, Providence (Boston)
Forward: Mikko Rantanen, San Antonio (Colorado)
Forward: Frank Vatrano, Providence (Boston)

Click here to read more about each player.

Rantanen is arguably the most well-known of the bunch. The 19-year-old was the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, so it’s no surprise to see his name on the list.

As for the other names, one wonders if Montour’s progression — along with Shea Theodore’s — could allow the Ducks to make Sami Vatanen available this offseason. Not because they’d want to trade Vatanen, but rather because he’s a pending restricted free agent and there’s only so much cap space. For the record, Vatanen has said he wants to remain a Duck “for a long time.”

Russo, 23, is another interesting story. He was originally drafted by the Islanders, but after four years at Notre Dame signed with the Red Wings as a free agent. That’s looking like a nice get for Detroit, which needs to keep getting younger on the back end.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have to be pleased to have two of their prospects honored — both Czarnik and Vatrano were undrafted, by the way — and it’ll be interesting to see what the Preds have planned for Saros. He’s only 20 and that’s young for a goalie, so even though Pekka Rinne‘s backup, Carter Hutton, is a pending unrestricted free agent, chances are Saros will get some more time in the AHL next season.

‘Too early’ to say if Seguin could be back for playoffs

Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin (91) yells after scoring a goal agains the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP

Tyler Seguin may not be able to picture himself missing the first game of the playoffs, but his coach, Lindy Ruff, was sounding a more cautious tone today.

“He’s skating in a limited fashion, I would say somewhere between the 50 and 75 percent range,” Ruff told reporters, per team beat writer Mark Stepneski.

Seguin suffered a partial cut of his Achilles tendon on March 17. His original timeline was 3-4 weeks.

When asked if it was realistic that Seguin could be ready by the start of the postseason next week, Ruff replied, “I don’t know. It’s too early for me to even comment whether it is or not.”

The Stars have managed well without their star forward, going 6-2-0 in his absence. They’ll win the Central Division if they beat the Avs tomorrow and the Predators Saturday.

Ruff also provided injury updates on defensemen Kris Russell and Jason Demers. The former could return tomorrow versus Colorado, the latter is progressing but remains questionable for the start of the playoffs.

The ‘message has been received loud and clear’ — Oilers promise better effort in final game at Rexall Place

Fans wait to get into Rexall Place as players from the Edmonton Oilers 1984 team reunite to mark the 30th anniversary of the team's first Stanley Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)
AP
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The Edmonton Oilers are hoping to end the old barn’s NHL era on a high note.

Tonight, they’ll host the Vancouver Canucks in the final game at Rexall Place, before moving downtown to a new arena next season.

On Saturday, the final Battle of Alberta at Rexall didn’t go so well for the home team. The Oilers got thumped, 5-0, by the Flames — a loss that Edmonton’s increasingly beleaguered-sounding head coach, Todd McLellan, called “freaking embarrassing.”

The players have vowed that won’t happen again.

“The message has been received loud and clear how that last game went,” said rookie phenom Connor McDavid, per the Edmonton Journal. “As a whole group we want to play our best here for the final game. There are a lot of people going to be in the building, special alumni, great fans, we want to put our best foot forward and play a solid game.”

So many memorable hockey moments have occurred inside the arena that used to be called Northlands Coliseum. The 1980s Oilers hoisted the Cup four times there. Wayne Gretzky broke all sorts of scoring records there.

Of course, it’s been a long time since Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Fuhr, Coffey, and Anderson ruled the league. There hasn’t even been a playoff game at Rexall Place since 2006, a decade ago.

And there never will be again.

“You look up and you see the banners and the names in the rafters, it’s a special place,” McDavid said. “It’s really hard to picture what it would have been like winning a Stanley Cup here with how everything has gone this year, but I can only imagine what it must have been like.”

Memorable moments

Dec. 30, 1981: Gretzky scores five goals against the Flyers to reach 50 goals in 39 games.

May 19, 1984: The Oilers win their first Stanley Cup, defeating the Islanders in Game 5 of the final.

April 30, 1986: Steve Smith scores the most famous own goal in hockey history, allowing the Flames to upset the Oilers in seven games.

May 31, 1987: Glenn Anderson’s goal clinches the Oilers’ third Stanley Cup, as they defeat the Flyers in a thrilling seven-game series.

Oct. 15, 1989: Gretzky becomes the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

June 10, 2006: Oilers fans belt out the Canadian national anthem prior to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final versus Carolina.

Related: Changes are coming in Edmonton — ‘We haven’t been good enough’