Chris Neil's hit on Victor Hedman put the Lightning defender on the shelf with a concussion. (Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
Throughout the continuing and endless head shot debate, one thing has become crystal clear: the most vital stakeholders in the game at the NHL level can’t get beyond the notion that if you remove some of the devastating blows we’ve seen lately it will remove the physical element that makes the game so appealing.
I couldn’t disagree with them more. I don’t think severely penalizing players for their recklessness will automatically transform the NHL into the National Ringette League. But they do. And they’re smart, passionate men who have an enormous amount of experience at virtually every level of the game.
So the news the GMs have deferred the issue to a to-be-named committee of seven GMs who will report back with recommendations at some point certainly won’t please everyone. But in light of the fact it has become increasingly clear there will never, ever be a blanket rule banning head shots in the NHL, it’s about as much as we can expect.
There is an appetite to have the blindside hits against unsuspecting players dealt with and the GMs held up the recent Mike Richards hit on David Booth as one that is currently legal, but might be a suspendable offense by this time next year. But how exactly do you remove those kinds of hits without taking a vital element out of the game?
“I don’t think any of us knows the answer to that,” said Nashville Predators GM David Poile. “That’s why we are where we are. It is certainly in our craw that if there’s a way to get rid of those 10 hits (a season), we’re going to do it.”
So, here’s the plan. Director of hockey operations Colin Campbell will soon appoint seven GMs to a committee that will form a breakout group at the next GM meetings in March. That group will monitor hits throughout the rest of this season and be provided with data from the league. It will then spend the first day of the March meetings discussing recommendations, which will then be presented to the entire group of GMs. If adopted by the GMs, the recommendations will then go to the competition committee, then to the board of governors for any potential change to the rulebook.
Doesn’t exactly scream a call to action, does it? Perhaps not. But there seems to be a resolve among this group to get rid of the Richards-Booth types of hits where a vulnerable player who couldn’t possibly see a hit coming takes one in the head and is carted off on a stretcher.
“It’s not easy, but if I were to characterize the group, I would say that it’s more serious than I’ve ever seen it before,” said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. “It’s viewed as being more serious than ever before and more important to work on.”
Recent hits such as the Mattias Ohlund hit on Phil Kessel, the Chris Neil hit on Victor Hedman or the Willie Mitchell hit on Jonathan Toews will never be outlawed by this group of GMs the way they might be if there were a blanket ban on head shots. Almost to a man, they view those kinds of hits as good hockey plays that are a deep part of the fabric of the game. And maybe they’re trying too hard to justify themselves here, but they are also quick to point out the types of hits that are most heinous are the exception rather than the rule.
“Over the course of a season, there are probably about a dozen hits that we can all remember that we all wish we could have back, so to speak,” Poile said. “Over the course of a game, there’s 40-plus hits and if you multiply that out, that’s about 50,000 hits in a season. To get rid of these 10 hits, what’s the right thing to do?”
It doesn’t help that all of this is so open to interpretation. A hit one person might view as a heinous crime could be viewed by another as a good hockey play that shouldn’t even be penalized. That was certainly the spectrum of opinion on the recent hit in the Ontario League on Ben Fanelli that earned Michael Liambas a season-long suspension.
Even the Richards hit on Booth isn’t entirely clear-cut.
“There was something about the Richards-Booth situation; it was a feeling that there’s just something that wasn’t right about that hit and we’d like to change that type of hit,” Poile said. “That one didn’t sit well with the managers.”
MEETING OF THE U.S. MINDS
U.S. Olympic team GM Brian Burke used the meetings as a chance to meet with assistant GM David Poile and advisors Ray Shero, Don Waddell and Dean Lombardi on the makeup of the team for the Vancouver Games.
Burke said the team would continue to work on its roster before meeting again in December at the board of governors meeting in Pebble Beach. But he gave the impression that a good number of the decisions have already been made.
“Then we’re going to chase guys,” Burke said of the plan after the Pebble Beach meeting. “We’re going to split up and chase guys. Hopefully, we’ll be down to two or three decisions to make because the bulk of the roster is coming together in our minds.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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