BOCA RATON, Fla. - The issue of headshots in hockey will be put under the microscope when the NHL's 30 general managers gather together this week.
It will be one of the many topics discussed during the annual GM meetings from Monday to Wednesday and seems to be the one most likely to result in a potential rule change.
It's something the GMs have grappled with a few times already. Former NHL Players' Association executives Paul Kelly and Glenn Healy raised the heading issue during a presentation at these meetings a year ago, saying it was the most important concern for players.
However, it didn't gain much traction then or during a subsequent meeting at the Stanley Cup final in June. The nature of the conversation changed when the group convened in November, prompted in part by a couple vicious hits early in the season - notably the one Mike Richards put on David Booth.
Marc Savard's injury Sunday should also be part of the conversation. The Bruins centre went down after Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke raised his shoulder, hitting Savard in the head from behind and sending him out on a stretcher.
In November, the managers began acknowledging that change might be in the air.
"(The conversation) 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," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said then. "If we continue down what was talked about today then we will see a change. ... I think if we got the direction that it appeared we were going, you will see a change for next year."
Rutherford is one of eight GMs who will be tasked with discussing various aspects of headshots before it is tackled by the larger group. A decision could then be made to recommend a rule change, which would need to be approved by the competition committee and league's board of governors.
Traditionally, the managers have grappled with finding a way to make hitting safer without diminishing the physical aspect of the sport. For example, the Canadian Hockey League currently assesses an automatic minor penalty for any check to the head, but that hasn't been a solution that appeals to many of the NHL general managers because they feel it discourages hitting.
Debates like this one are what these meetings are all about. They offer many of the league's top hockey men the rare opportunity to analyse and debate a variety of aspects about the game.
Over the three days, the GMs will break into smaller groups to tackle different topics - some with the potential to spark change in the near future.
The most likely to generate traction this week is a way to curb blindside hits and blows to the head. There clearly seemed to be an appetite for change the last time the 30 GMs gathered together during the Hockey Hall of Fame celebrations in November.
"Everybody in the room knows that this is an important subject," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after those meetings. "It's going to require further discussion because it's not a simple subject. (The March meetings) 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."
Once again, the GMs will be able to conduct these meetings without any distractions. For the second straight year, they are being held after the NHL's trade deadline - removing the buzz and speculation that was once a major part of the annual get together.
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