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NHL general managers still looking for the right way to eliminate head shots

The Boston Bruins lean over fallen teammate Marc Savard after a hit in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 7, 2010. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli says the hit on Savard was exactly what the league's managers are trying to eliminate from the game. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Keith Srakocic

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The Boston Bruins lean over fallen teammate Marc Savard after a hit in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 7, 2010. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli says the hit on Savard was exactly what the league's managers are trying to eliminate from the game. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Keith Srakocic

BOCA RATON, Fla. - As more ugly head shots make news, the NHL's 30 general managers are still wrestling with how to handle the issue.

The GMs were presented with an avalanche of information about concussions and various types of checks on the opening day of their annual meeting Monday, but they seemed no closer to a recommendation that could lead to fewer hits to the head.

And the pressure is mounting.

After watching Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard carried from the ice on a stretcher and hearing players start to voice concern, many are looking to the GMs to make some kind of recommendation by the time their meetings wrap up Wednesday.

It won't be easy.

"I hope that we can do something that can help fix part of the problem, but it's not really as cut and dry as a lot of people think," said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford.

The managers have discussed the issue several times in the past, including at these meetings a year ago after former NHL Players' Association executives Paul Kelly and Glenn Healy raised it.

They've yet to find an acceptable way to reduce the head hits while still maintaining the physical nature of the sport.

The GMs will break into smaller groups Tuesday to discuss a variety of topics - including head shots - and could come up with a recommendation before going home. Any rule change is subject to the approval of the competition committee and board of governors.

After watching video and hearing from Calgary-based concussion expert Winne Meeuwisse on Monday, the GMs should be armed with enough information.

"We tried to educate them as much as we can on the issues at stake here," said league disciplinarian Colin Campbell. "I am confident they'll certainly be informed of everything. This is a real difficult task ... that we face here. The hits are great until someone gets hurt.

"There's such a fine line to determine whether it's legal or illegal."

The issue was back in the spotlight Sunday when Savard left the ice on a stretcher after a taking hard blindsided check to the head from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli attended the game before flying to Florida and was understandably concerned. He believes hits like that one need to be removed from the game.

"Based on what I saw, it looked like this was the prime example of what we're talking about," said Chiarelli.

"We may lose the guy for the rest of the year," he added. "I don't know."

Savard travelled back to Boston on Monday and was slated to meet with a concussion specialist. He complained of a headache and felt tired, according to Chiarelli.

Campbell refused specific comment on the hit, but indicated that he would be taking a closer look at it before the Penguins play again on Thursday - raising the possibility Cooke could be facing his third suspension of the season.

The incident was a major topic of discussion in the hockey world, but at least one general manager said it didn't affect the tone of the meetings.

"I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but when we talk about rule changes I could care less what the media has to say about it," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "To me, we've got to address what's right about our game and what's wrong about or game - not what some sportswriter thinks is wrong with the game."

In fact, the Savard-Cooke incident wasn't discussed by the GMs on Monday. Instead, they were shown a comprehensive video that covered not only the evolution of head blows in the sport, but also a number of recent examples of some hits that injure players and others that don't.

Campbell and the league's hockey operations staff have devoted plenty of time to the issue, recently going through the "excruciating exercise" of breaking down every play over 21 games.

They found an average of 22 head hits - resulting in one penalty call per game - and calculated that 30 per cent of those hits shots came from the shoulder of an opposing player.

"There's hits to the head almost every shift," said Rutherford. "Guys brushing by a guy or just clip him a bit with a stick or you rub your glove (against) his head. That's where it gets vague. If you just think it's cut and dry and you get rid of hits to the head then you'll be calling a penalty every shift."

Still, a number of players - including Penguins captain Sidney Crosby - have said they'd like to see the league provide some direction on the issue.

"It's everybody. It's not on one group or one person," Edmonton Jason Strudwick said Monday. "I think as a whole league, we have to all come together and get some kind of resolution to this."

One thing the NHL doesn't seem to be considering is adopting the OHL and international hockey rule of handing out an automatic penalty for every hit to the head.

"I think we want to make our own decisions - period," said Nashville Predators GM David Poile. "Let's see what we come up with."

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