By Steve Keating ,Reuters
TORONTO — Stiffer penalties and stricter rule enforcement have helped to dramatically lower the number of concussions suffered during the first month of the 2011-12 season, the National Hockey League (NHL) said on Tuesday. Concussions are down 50-60 percent from the same point last year, the NHL told general managers during their first meeting of the season, offering clear evidence that steps taken to curb hits to the head are having an impact. “They are less than half from the same time last year, so it’s a significant improvement,” NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan told reporters. “We would love get rid of them all, but we know we’re not going to do that.” The NHL did not provide figures but the high number of bans handed out by Shanahan appear to have gotten the message across that dangerous hits will no longer be tolerated. Since taking over as league disciplinarian at the start of the NHL season, Shanahan has suspended over a dozen players for multiple games, including a 12-game ban to Columbus Blue Jacket James Wisniewski for a hit to the head. Concussions remain the hot button issue for the NHL as the league and fans await the return of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has been out of action for almost an entire year recovering from concussion symptoms. Much of the morning was devoted to discussing goaltender safety, an issue that has made headlines recently as Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller suffered a concussion after a hit from Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic. Lucic, who flattened Miller when the former Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie left his crease to clear the puck during Saturday’s game, was assessed a minor penalty for charging but avoided suspension. The Sabres organization wanted to see Lucic banned but the Bruins forward, in a hearing with Shanahan, said he only saw Miller when it was too late to avoid contact. “We just wanted to make sure that we are all on the same page that when they (netminders) are out on the open ice they are going to be protected,” St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong told reporters. “We want to make sure that they understand that they are not fair game when they are outside in the open ice.” Shanahan made it clear running at netminders would not be tolerated and that there are already rules in place to prevent goalies from being targeted. “Certainly they are not fair game, players have to understand that,” assured Shanahan. “The general managers expressed to me the importance of all the players on the ice but also the extreme importance of the goaltender. “That is something as a message to the players around the league, if anybody does think (running at goalies) is a tactic and a tactic that is a smart gamble on their part, it won’t be.” General managers were also briefed on realignment plans that will be the top item at the board of governors meetings next month at Pebble Beach, California.