Heads will roll this season

Dean McAmmond gets medical attention after suffering a concussion from a hit by Steve Downie during...

Dean McAmmond gets medical attention after suffering a concussion from a hit by Steve Downie during pre-season action. (Sun File/Tony Caldwell)

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

Welcome to a new season of Survivor: NHL.

It's a jungle out there and not just for those teams trying to stay alive in weak markets. Now, it's about players saving their own heads, with knocks to the noggin prominent in the league's summer think-tanks.

Commissioner Gary Bettman can point to last spring's excellent Stanley Cup final as a good omen, with the Anaheim Ducks putting hockey back on the California sports map. But even that series included a one-game suspension to Chris Pronger for an elbow to the head of Ottawa's Dean McAmmond.

SUSPENSIONS

The new season begins with the Islanders' Chris Simon still serving the last of a 25-game suspension for a Paul Bunyanesque slash at Ranger Ryan Hollweg's neck. Steve Downie will sit 20 for ignoring the new edict on head hunting last week when he launched himself at the unfortunate McAmmond.

Also victimized by shots to the head last year were Sabres star Chris Drury by Sens heavy hitter Chris Neil. Pittsburgh's Colby Armstrong rattled Patrick Eaves of the Sens and the Coyotes Trevor Letowski, while New Jersey's Cam Janssen was suspended for a late hit that scrambled Tomas Kaberle's eggs, leaving the Leafs' best defenceman concussed for three weeks.

That spurred the league to action and just in time according to a two-part special in last week's Orange County Register. The paper reported NHLers missed 760 games because of concussions and related symptoms in 2006-07, a 41% increase over the previous season.

"The owners and the NHL have absolutely turned a blind eye to head injuries," the paper quoted University of Toronto professor Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon who has treated many concussed players.

"With the escalation we (saw) in the last two, three months (of 2006-07), there's a strong possibility somebody will die from a head injury.

"The NHL is headed in that direction."

For now, the league hopes the Downie suspension, the longest of its kind, will resonate with reckless players. At the very least players will be keeping their heads up.

Eleven other NHL story lines to follow this year:

1. ON THE HOT SEAT: Ryan Smyth in Colorado, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez with the Rangers, Daniel Briere in Philadelphia, Sheldon Souray in Edmonton, Vesa Toskala in Toronto. All got big bucks to turn their teams around.

Sidney Crosby will have to do it all again in Pittsburgh, but has lots of help with a team that looks like the second coming of the 1980s Oilers. Still waiting on where Peter Forsberg lands, whether Scott Niedermayer decides to play and if Rick Tocchet is reinstated.

2. CANADA CALLING: Serious schmoozing is going on behind the scenes for expansion to Winnipeg where a full 15,500-seat arena of true hockey fans surely beats 12,000 casual customers somewhere in the Sun Belt. Don't count out canny Jim Balsillie from trying to move or create a team in Ontario in '08, this time with a bit more diplomacy.

3. MUSIC CITY MIRACLE? Are the Predators really saved, or will the gutted roster struggle and imperil the locally brokered deal to keep them in Nashville? Attendance is also going to be an issue again in Original Six markets Detroit, Boston and Chicago.

4. BENCH MARKS: Canadian junior hockey guru Brent Sutter goes to work for trigger-happy Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, leaving caustic Mike Keenan working for brother Darryl in Calgary. Claude Julien returns to the firing line in Boston, John Paddock inherits the Sens from boss Bryan Murray.

5. COAST TO COAST: A return to traditional scheduling with games against all teams in the league should be approved in December. On New Year's Day, the Sabres and Penguins tempt old man winter with an outdoor game.

6. CRIMES OF FASHION: Okay, so the new NHL sweaters are drip dry and have racing stripes on the socks. But many players complain they're so tight that pugilists might sprain their thumb trying to pull them over opponents' heads. But like shootouts and protective netting, fans will just have to get used to it.

7. MORE NEW RULES: There is now a five-minute interference major at the referee's discretion should an injury result from the infraction. A penalty shot will be called if a breakaway is hampered in the neutral zone, as opposed to inside the blue line.

8. STEROIDS: The topic that won't go away, despite repeated denials from the league, backed by near perfect test scores. But Sean Hill's suspension last year has cast some doubt on those squeaky-clean claims.

9. LEAFS AND HABS: A crisis a day in Leafs Nation whether it needs one or not. But with their old rivalry with Toronto being usurped by Ottawa and no guarantee of a playoff spot, the Canadiens are in danger of becoming irrelevant outside Quebec.

10. NHLPA LEADERSHIP: The executive board of the union held a conference call Monday night, in part to get an update from the search committee on picking an executive director. The new person should be in place by the fall, healing a divided membership and perhaps setting the stage for renewed owner-player conflict.

11. TV NUMBERS: While the NHL's deal with insignificant Versus in the U.S. is producing minuscule viewership numbers there's talk of a renewed deal with ESPN in the offing.


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