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NHL general managers move one step closer to penalizing head shots

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Sami Salo, right, falls to the ice after being hit in the head by Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, March 5, 2010 in Chicago. Bolland received a penalty on the play. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Vancouver Canucks defenseman Sami Salo, right, falls to the ice after being hit in the head by Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, March 5, 2010 in Chicago. Bolland received a penalty on the play. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Charles Rex Arbogast)

BOCA RATON, Fla. - NHL general managers are ready to take a firm stance on hits to the head.

They moved one step closer to making an official rule recommendation Tuesday when the eight-man group in charge of examining the issue came up with a penalty designed to curb head shots. They'll present the idea to the larger group Wednesday and are expected to have a formal proposal for the competition committee when the meetings wrap up.

"We'd like to leave here - in my mind anyhow - with some clarity or closure going forward," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "(I think) we can put something in place to really say 'this is how we're going to play the game.' What's acceptable, what's not acceptable."

The GMs were reluctant to outline exactly what the new penalty would entail because it could still be altered during Wednesday's session. However, they did say that it will focus on hits delivered to unsuspecting players with a shoulder to the head - exactly the kind of play that saw Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke knock Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard unconscious over the weekend.

There have been a few serious hits like that one this season and it's prompted the GMs to take action. A year ago at these meetings, they dismissed a proposal from the NHL Players' Association about establishing a rule for hits to the head. They now find themselves doing just that.

"There's some things that kind of made us all uncomfortable," said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "I happen to like physical hockey, there's a lot of managers that feel the same way. Brian Burke is very vocal about it. There's some things that made us feel uncomfortable this year, I think all of us.

"It's something that we feel we need to address and that's what we're trying to do here."

Holmgren and Wilson were joined in the group discussing hits to the head by Burke (Toronto), Lou Lamoriello (New Jersey), Joe Nieuwendyk (Dallas), Darcy Regier (Buffalo), Jim Rutherford (Carolina) and Ken Holland (Detroit).

The other managers were split between three groups that brainstormed on a number of topics, many of them ranging from far-fetched to wacky.

For example, the New York Islanders proposed having a series of elimination games between the bottom eight teams in each conference to determine the final playoff seed. Among the other things discussed were giving coaches the ability to challenge plays, having two players select the all-star teams and experimenting with a different point format in the standings.

Even though none of them took hold, it's an aspect of these meetings that many of the participants enjoy.

"We're all looking for ways to make the game better," said Islanders GM Garth Snow.

One potential change that seemed to have support was altering the tiebreaking format to favour teams with the highest number of regulation victories rather than total wins.

The other is a new rule on head shots that will likely be accompanied with stiffer suspensions for repeat offenders. The GMs seem intent on making a strong statement.

"I think it would be a combination of both (a new penalty and tougher suspensions), but it's still a little bit premature," said Wilson. "If you're trying to change something or address something that's a concern to us, I think it (needs) both elements to make it impactful."

Even though Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli wasn't part of the group discussing hits to the head, he's keenly interested in the topic after watching one of his star players taken from the ice on a stretcher.

Savard suffered a serious concussion and will meet with a specialist on Thursday. There's a chance he could be sidelined for the remainder of the season.

"Sure, yeah (it's possible)," said Chiarelli. "Based on the criteria that we have, the evidence we have - he's lost consciousness (and) is suffering memory loss. That points to a significant concussion."

League disciplinarian Colin Campbell has yet to make a ruling on the hit and expects to make a decision Wednesday about whether Cooke will be suspended or not.

The topic remains a major talking point in the hockey world, with many players indicating they're in favour of having the GMs take steps to remove head shots from the sport.

"It is a physical game and you've got to expect to get hit sometimes," Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis said in Montreal. "There are times you know you're going to get hit and times you don't. But in terms of head shots, there's no room for that.

"Especially with the speed of the game now and the amount of head injuries we've had just this year alone."

It's been an issue that has crept into the NHL over the last decade.

Nieuwendyk retired as a player in 2006 and noticed the number of hits to the head increase towards the end of his 20-year career. He's anxious to see the issue addressed now.

"I've been in favour of this," said Nieuwendyk. "I don't think we're trying to reinvent the wheel either, we have a great game. But in light of some of the hits ... I think it's going to be for the good of the game for sure."

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