New rink improvements league-wide could have a dramatic impact on player safety for 2011-12 season

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Saturday, October 1, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Several new rink improvements in San Jose improve player safety and fan visibility

Thomas Heemskerk makes a save on Brandon Mashinter at Worcester Sharks training camp practice

The National Hockey League pre-season is traditionally a time for teams to complete internal assessments and evaluations and prepare for a long 82-game regular season grind, hopefully one that ends in a playoff berth. This pre-season there has been a different sort of on-ice adjustment. Players and teams are looking to adapt their style of play to fit into enhanced safety guidelines and a more rigorous enforcement by NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan. Already this preseason Shanahan has suspended 9 players (Clarke MacArthur, Brendan Smith, Tom Sestito, Jean-Francois Jacques, James Wisniewski, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and former Sharkss Brad Staubitz, Brad Boyes and Jody Shelley) for hits to the head and hits from behind. Before the season has even started, Shanahan has levied over $700,000 in fines.

Another area of change was noticeable around the league when players first stepped onto the ice for the start of preseason. NHL arenas will feature new curved panels at the end of each player bench to prevent or deflect the same type of collision that resulted in a severe injury to Max Pacioretty last March. Pacioretty suffered a broken C4 vertebra and sustained a severe concussion after he was checked into the unforgiving stanchion by 6-foot-9, 260-pound Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. As of September 26th, 22 NHL arenas will feature curved acrylic terminations made by joint Canadian and American company Sport Systems Unlimited/Athletica. The Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs reported that by the start of the season, all 30 arenas will feature curved end panels as well as new, safer acrylic seamless glass. “We reached a comfort level,” NHL spokesman Gary Meagher told the Montreal Gazette of the new acrylic prototypes pitched in March, modified in July. “We had the right system and at that point it became mandated (league-wide).”

This season at least 11 NHL arenas will feature new seamless acrylic shielding from joint American and Canadian Company Sports System Unlimited/Athletica. Their new seamless acrylic features larger and clearer panes than many older plexiglas setups, but maintains some of the flexibility that was not there with hardened tempered glass (33-61% more flexibility than NHL benchmarks according to Martin Consulting Engineers). The other manufacturer approved for the new design was Cascadia Sport Systems out of British Columbia. While tempered seamless glass improved sightlines and visibility for fans, it’s unforgiving and inflexibile nature made play in the corners and along the endboards more dangerous. All 6 NHL rinks with tempered seamless glass will switch over. In California, only Bakersfield is still using tempered seamless glass at the ECHL level.

The new “seamless acrylic shielding” adds to other improvements to increase player saftey. Sport Systems Unlimited’s new clear divider sleeves provide more flex between acrylic panels, and an added U-channel built into the boards allows panels to slide back upon heavy impact. It adds more of a shock absorbing functionality than fans may be used to. Beers placed along the rail may be launched a few rows back with a big check. As many as 12 teams will also use a new SSU/Athletica cap along the top of the boards. Made from a more flexible material than past options, the new ‘softcap’ will feature air pockets that could help prevent face and head injuries when players are checked face first into the boards.

According to a press release, Sports System Unlimited installed new dasher board systems and acrylic shielding this summer at the Sharks practice facility in San Jose as well as at HP Pavilion. “(The new boards) seem to be a little more lively than the old ones, the old ones used to just die,” San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton told the Mercury News about the new boards. “These, they’ve got a lot of jump to them and they’re really smooth.” SSU CEO Adam Pender also noted that San Jose would utilize the new softcap board protection system. They were part of several off season facility upgrades at the Tank that include giant new hanging video monitors in the concourse, new food items, and electronic advertising panels inside the boards next to each player bench.

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