TORONTO - The NHL's general managers are getting closer to making a recommendation about how to curb headshots.
The league's 30 GMs and their assistants wrapped up meetings with a discussion of the issue Wednesday and decided to formulate a small committee to take a closer look at it before they get together again in March.
At that time, it's thought the group might be in a position to make a recommendation to the competition committee about a possible rule change. The GMs have discussed hits to the head in the past, but there was a change in the tone of conversation this time around.
"It was quite a bit different, some of the guys who have taken a strong position that it may take hitting out of the game have adjusted their views a little bit," said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. "If we continue down what was talked about today then we will see a change.
"It will be on the agenda of the next meeting and I think if we got the direction that it appeared we were going, you will see a change for next year."
The issue has been pushed to the forefront because of a few notable checks this season - Mike Richards on David Booth and Willie Mitchell on Jonathan Toews, to name two. Neither of those hits resulted in a suspension because there's nothing currently in the rulebook to prevent them.
The main thing the general managers want to see eliminated is bodychecks delivered to unsuspecting players.
"A player should have an ability to anticipate a hit, prepare for a hit or avoid a hit," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "If he doesn't have those, then I think the onus has to shift to the hitter. He's got to deliver a safe hit."
Burke is one of the former hardliners who has softened a little on the issue. A big concern for the group has traditionally been that a rule banning headshots might inadvertently lead to the elimination of all bodychecks.
The high-profile hits have clearly made an impact on the group, which wants to bring safety to a sport that is by its very nature quite dangerous.
"The Booth hit in particular, I personally feel that if that was my son I wouldn't want for that to be the way he was hit," said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero. "What Mike Richards did was within the rules we have currently. That's not the issue. The issue is making the game as safe as can be. I don't think we're looking for a big rule change, but maybe we can tweak something.
"There's no many of these a year, fortunately. There might be four or five. But when they happen, they're catastrophic."
One thing that stands out for NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell is just how much the sport has changed and evolved. He sat down and watched a game from the 1970's recently and noticed how much less physical play there was.
"The hitting today is so much more evident," said Campbell.
Player safety was a key theme from Wednesday's meeting as the GMs also looked at some new equipment.
Mark Messier made a presentation on behalf of manufacturer Cascade Sports, which has designed a helmet meant to limit concussions. The Moose even made a few sales as Burke indicated he wanted to get some for the Toronto Marlies AHL team.
Some of his colleagues were impressed by it as well.
"I like the look of it and think it's an advancement in technology that any player should be open to," said Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis.
Among the other agenda items discussed Wednesday:
-deputy commissioner Bill Daly scolded the GMs for long-term contracts designed to circumvent the cap and provided an update on the three deals (Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo) currently being investigated by the league.
-a financial update on next year's salary cap, which isn't expected to change drastically.
However, the most important development from the meetings is the discussion on headshots. Even though there's differing views on what needs to be done, the dialogue wasn't contentious. "(It was) very low key," said Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell. "It didn't go on as long as you guys would like to think it went on for. Everybody's concerned about it, but everybody also doesn't want to lose hitting in the game."
Even still, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sensed some change in the air.
"Everybody in the room knows that this is an important subject," he said. "It's going to require further discussion because it's not a simple subject. (The March meeting) will be an opportunity to look at the subject even more in an in-depth way.
"But I do think there's a sense when there's a shot to the head for a player who is in a vulnerable position or is unsuspecting, that's something that can and should be addressed."