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NHL seeks improvements in equipment safety

File/Canadian Press via AP

Player safety hits close to home for Brendan Shanahan

Jack Shanahan’s father is a powerful man in hockey. The 9-year-old is the son of Brendan Shanahan, future Hall of Famer, three-time Stanley Cup champion, and current NHL senior vice president of player safety. Naturally, young Jack plays hockey.

The old man, also the league’s disciplinarian, is as firm with his own boy as he is with the boys whose tempers he helps to oversee. When Jack is old enough to check, he will have to wear different gear.

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“They’re too hard,’’ Shanahan said of his son’s shoulder pads. “When he gets to an age where there’s body checking, I won’t let him wear things like this.’’

In his first year as NHL disciplinarian, Shanahan has studied the effects of some of the world’s fittest athletes using protective equipment as weapons. Some of the current gear is considered dangerous on the bodies of pre-teens. Strap those unforgiving pads on the shoulders and elbows of a fitness freak chasing down an unsuspecting opponent and the result can be disastrous.

“Personally, I’d rather have a player with a separated shoulder than someone with a concussion,’’ said Bruins president Cam Neely earlier this month. “I don’t know why it’s that difficult to look at the equipment and say, ‘We really need to do something with the shoulder pads and elbow pads.’ ’’

The NHL has seen the equipment issue creep into the sport. It is not alone.

Racket technology has changed tennis. Modern golf clubs would give the wimpy Spaulding Smails from “Caddyshack’’ the chance to abuse a par-5 hole. Skin-tight swimsuits have caused records to fall like soccer divers.

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But hockey has become more dangerous with equipment evolution. Neely was at the helm of a Boston club missing Nathan Horton and Adam McQuaid in the playoffs because of concussions.

It’s difficult to measure how much of a factor equipment played in their head injuries. On Jan. 22, Horton suffered his concussion when Philadelphia’s Tom Sestito hit him from the side with his left arm. On March 29, Washington’s Jason Chimera delivered the knockout blow to McQuaid at full sprint, checking McQuaid with his right shoulder and knocking the defenseman’s head into the boards.

It’s also hard to gauge how much Aaron Rome’s equipment was a factor in delivering Horton’s concussion during Game 3 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver. Rome launched himself into Horton and drove his left shoulder into the forward’s head.

But the equipment players are wearing has made them fearless. Iron Man would like to swipe some of today’s NHL armor for the next “Avengers’’ movie. The game’s check-finishing culture, coupled with the pads’ rigidity, has been a 1-2 wallop. The result: too many players hearing birdies chirp in their heads.

Shanahan and player safety lieutenants Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal have tried to use supplemental discipline as a deterrent. But suspensions did not prevent Phoenix’s Raffi Torres, on April 17, from burying his shoulder into Marian Hossa’s head, then finishing him with his left arm.

“The players really have to get involved, too,’’ Neely said. “The league can do as much as it can with suspensions and the like. But the players also have to take a hard look at how they’re approaching the game themselves. I know it’s a fast game. I know it’s a competitive game. But they have to be as smart as they possibly can on the ice, too.’’

Equipment manufacturers have been conflicted. Players have repeatedly told them what they want. And what they want is stuff that will make them faster, lighter, and stronger. The manufacturers listened. Maybe too well.

The problem with the most dangerous pads is that they deliver force - and often trauma - on a targeted and concentrated surface area. Think of a player, wearing a plastic elbow pad, who catches an opponent in the head. When he swings his elbow and connects, he delivers energy via a rock-hard shell. The energy does not effectively dissipate upon contact.

“The elbow pad is too rigid,’’ said Philippe Dube, Reebok-CCM Hockey general manager. “The impact for the receiving player is very localized.’’

All parties - the NHL, the Players Association, manufacturers - recognize the imperative to dial back the dangerous equipment. Reebok-CCM is collaborating with researchers from the University of Ottawa to test equipment in high-impact situations. The aim is to design equipment that serves the dual purpose of protecting both players during a collision.

Reebok-CCM dubs its next-generation gear “Crazy Light.’’ The Crazy Light shoulder pads weigh 750 grams. Traditional shoulder pads weigh 1,000-1,500 grams. The pads feature a softer material called UFoam instead of hard plastic.

The line is undergoing testing. Select players, including Reebok-CCM endorsers, tested the new pads in the 2011-12 season. The advantage to the Crazy Light line, according to Dube, is how it protects the wearer while also spreading out impact.

“It’s more diffuse,’’ Dube said. “There is a reduced stress of impact. It also absorbs more impact. It reduces the angular acceleration, which is key.’’

According to Shanahan, some players have tested the softer shoulder pads. Like Dube, Shanahan does not have a timetable as to when such pads will become standard.

“We’re going in a different direction now, where we’re trying to make it more streamlined, where it’s as protective, but softer and safer,’’ Shanahan said. “Player input is important as well.

“Safety is first and foremost. We also don’t want to adversely affect performance. That’s why we’re taking our time and trying to do it the right way. We don’t want to create a new problem by trying to fix one.’’

Concussions under scrutiny

A STUDY WITH IMPACT
Sidney Crosby is the game’s biggest superstar. Reebok-CCM claims Crosby among its stable of clients. It is no coincidence, then, that Reebok-CCM has pledged helmet improvements in the wake of Crosby’s concussions.

Current helmets are effective in protecting players from skull fractures. But they can’t do anything to prevent the brain from jostling inside the skull.

Through its partnership with the University of Ottawa, Reebok-CCM is studying collisions that can result in concussions. One of the mysteries is why certain impacts can leave one player with a concussion while another player, under the same conditions, can skate away uninjured.

“We know the symptoms,’’ Dube said. “But we don’t really know why there is a concussion sometimes. For some players, you need a big acceleration. But some small ones can create a concussion. The medical and scientific worlds don’t really fully understand what a concussion is.

“What we’re working on is to reproduce impact conditions. By doing that, we know the speed, angular acceleration, and impact. After that, we can reproduce it in the lab to measure the consequences it has within the brain. It’s very important. We can really re-create some standards for helmet certification down the road.’’

In January, Bauer released a new helmet with a liner meant to address rotational force impacts. The liner is designed to move independently within the helmet, with the goal of dissipating energy when a collision takes place.

Fear of injury is blocked out

ETC.
Through two rounds, the Capitals blocked 308 shots, most of any team in this year’s postseason. In comparison, the Bruins stepped in front of 377 shots through four rounds last year. The primary reason for the increase in shot-blocking is how effective shin pads have become. Players have no fear of sticking their legs in shooting lanes because pucks glance off their armor without inflicting any damage. It is yet another example in how advances in hockey equipment have touched the game. Coaches are confident their players’ chances of injury are reduced because of the equipment. Consequently, they’re devising game plans that emphasize shot-blocking. The manufacturers are not planning to change their approach. Ninety-five percent of NHL players wear Reebok shin pads, according to the manufacturer. “You don’t want a soft pad on the shin pad,’’ said Dube. “That will stay. They provide better safety. I don’t think it affects the interest in the game. The fact that you can block a shot from a defenseman with your shin pads is part of the game.’’

Cap feels a little tight

The Bruins have approximately $58 million in payroll on the 2012-13 books. That number includes Marc Savard’s annual cap hit ($4,007,143) and Patrick Eaves’s buyout cost ($258,333). Like every team, the Bruins must consider the balance between this summer’s ceiling - chatter around the league pegs it around $68 million-$69 million - and what the cap will become when the new collective bargaining agreement is in place. It is possible that the cap, currently $64.3 million, could go down with the next CBA. One of the Bruins’ top priorities is to re-sign Tuukka Rask, who will reach restricted free agency July 1. Assuming Rask doubles his current $1.25 million annual hit, the club won’t have much room to re-sign its other free agents-to-be: Benoit Pouliot (restricted), Chris Kelly (unrestricted), Gregory Campbell (UFA), Daniel Paille (UFA), Brian Rolston (UFA), Greg Zanon (UFA), Joe Corvo (UFA), and Mike Mottau (UFA). Their first-round exit proved that the bottom-six grinders are essential to postseason success. As of now, the only projected third- and fourth-liners under contract are Rich Peverley, Jordan Caron, and Shawn Thornton. The two cards management could play for cap relief: trading Tim Thomas and placing Savard on long-term injured reserve.

What’s cooking with Oil?

In 2012-13, the Oilers will be led by their fourth coach since 2009. Edmonton announced Thursday that Tom Renney will not return next season. Geoff Ward, who has been Claude Julien’s assistant in Boston since 2007, drew an Oilers paycheck from 2001-06. He was an AHL assistant, head coach, and development coach, and he might be ready to run his own bench. But the Oilers have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, so bosses Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini might not be willing to commit to a new hire who doesn’t have NHL head coaching experience.

Departure on blue line?

Zanon, Boston’s primary acquisition at the trade deadline, is facing a numbers crunch if he hopes to re-sign with the Bruins. The Bruins have five defensemen under contract. Dougie Hamilton projects to make the big-league roster. Zanon’s previous deal was a three-year, $5.8 million contract, according to capgeek.com. “I think the Bruins were very happy with Greg and what he brought to the table,’’ wrote Peter Fish, Zanon’s agent, in an email. “I also think they would like to have him back as well. However, it is a crowded blue line and perhaps a move would have to be made.’’ If Zanon reaches the open market, the stay-at-homer should draw interest because of his shot-blocking acumen and in-your-face approach.

Loose pucks

Zdeno Chara and his Slovakia team knocked France out of the World Championships. Three former Hockey East players suited up for the French: Yorick Treille (Lowell), Laurent Meunier (Lowell), and Stephane Da Costa (Merrimack). France also featured Antoine Roussel, who appeared in 42 games for Providence in 2010-11 . . . Still probably not the right time to remind Black-and-Gold fans that the Bruins could have picked Braden Holtby in 2008 when they were looking for a goalie. Washington grabbed Holtby in the fourth round. Sixteen slots earlier, the Bruins drafted Michael Hutchinson. As a second-year pro, Hutchinson went 13-14-1 with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage for Providence . . . Tomas Vokoun should be an inexpensive UFA pickup, as the Capitals go with Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Toronto could be in the mix . . . Last week, when discussing the NHL combine, strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle discussed the challenge for players to improve their vertical jump. The test, Boyle believes, is the combine’s most accurate indicator for a preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which translate to explosive speed. Boyle noted one anomaly: Tony Amonte. The Hingham native, recalled Boyle, improved from 20 to 28 inches in one year. Amonte was one of the NHL’s fastest and most dynamic skaters . . . Slovakian cyclist Peter Sagan won the first four stages of the ongoing Tour of California. Chara, a cycling enthusiast, has ridden with Sagan, and regularly tells the story of one ride in particular. Despite being one of the fittest players in the NHL, Chara was struggling up a steep climb. The way Chara tells it, Sagan calmly popped a wheelie, then took his hands off the handlebars. Every time Chara spins this yarn (I’ve heard it several times), the hill gets steeper.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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