BOCA RATON, Fla. - NHL general managers have agreed on a rule to penalize blindside hits to the head, looking to protect its talent in a game they acknowledge has become faster and more prone to collisions in recent years.
The GMs want referees to call a minor or major penalty for any hit where the primary point of contact is the head.
The penalty is subject to approval from the competition committee, which is composed of five players, five GMs and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. But that's not expected to be a problem since the GMs have agreed on the proposal and the players have already signalled their support.
The new rule, which has not yet been given a specific name, could take effect next season. The proposed wording is:
"A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or is the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."
The rule recommendation signals a shift in thinking by the GMs, who showed little interest a year ago when the NHL Players' Association proposed such a penalty. It could also mark a cultural change for a sport that has traditionally placed the onus on a player receiving a hit to protect himself.
"Basically, we are taking a completely legal hit with the shoulder and saying from a certain aspect in the future that is going to be an illegal hit if delivered to the head," league disciplinarian Colin Campbell said Wednesday as three days of meetings wrapped up on Florida's Atlantic coast.
"We are shifting some of the responsibility from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit now, which was never a part of our game. Since you grew up, you always had to have your head up. You'd get crap from your dad if you got hit while watching your pass. But now, there is some responsibility on the guy delivering the hit."
Campbell acknowledged that it would be best if the changes could be made immediately, but said it simply wasn't possible.
On the same day he found himself talking about a new standard for head hits, Campbell decided not to suspend Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke for a hit that will be used as a textbook example of what isn't allowed under the proposed rule.
Over the weekend, Cooke knocked Boston's Marc Savard out cold with a blindside check to the head.
Savard remains out indefinitely with a concussion.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli lobbied Campbell to suspend Cooke based on the fact he's a repeat offender and said he was upset it didn't happen.
"I'm both surprised and angered," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said on a conference call. "It's really disappointing."
There is currently nothing in the NHL rulebook that forbids a bodycheck with the shoulder - no matter where the point of impact is. That could soon change.
"Now there's something punishable and players want to know that, what they can and cannot do," said NHL executive Brendan Shanahan, a former player. "This is not something the managers and fans have demanded or the media on their own, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper and read the quotes from players today. Players want certain types of hits gone from the game."
A hit that will still be allowed under the rules is one where a player's shoulder strikes the head of an opponent in a head-on collision. The classic example of that type of play is the hit New Jersey's Scott Stevens threw on Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2000 playoffs.
The new blindside hit rule comes with a mandate from GMs that Campbell start levying heavier suspensions, particularly for repeat offenders.
The managers want to send a clear message to players - and it seems to be one that many are happy to receive.
"Those hits to the head, there's no place in the game for them," said Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf. "All that comes out from them is guys get hurt, it's not something you like. The blindside hits, there had to be something done about it and it's good that they came to a ruling on it.
"It's pretty simple. The hit that you saw that raised this issue again was something you don't want to see in the game."
Even though hits to the head were the primary focus of the meetings, the GMs also came up with two other recommendations: they proposed the standings tiebreaker be changed from number of victories to the number of victories in regulation and overtime, somewhat reducing the importance of shootout wins; and they committed to helping the American Hockey League hire more officials so that it will use a two-referee system in 40 per cent of its regular-season games next season and the entire playoffs.
Interestingly, many feel the changes that were made to improve the game coming out of the lockout are partly to blame for the increase in violent hits to the head. The game has been sped up considerably with the elimination of obstruction that started in the 2005-06 season.
"It is tough to protect yourself in our game with the speed," said Campbell. "Unfortunately when you want to do good things, all good things don't come out of those processes. We changed this game and took the red-line out and took the holding and hooking out of the game and we increased the speed of this game 10-fold and in doing that we also increased the collision force in these hits."
A number of managers didn't like the idea of a head checking penalty in recent years because they feared it might reduce the amount of overall contact in the sport.
In light of some of the incidents they've seen this season, they've decided they'll live with that possibility.
"It is a slight culture shift in that sense, yes, that now if you're the hitter you have to make a choice," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "You can still hit that guy, but you can't target his head and sometimes you're just going to have to avoid the hit altogether."
Added New York Rangers GM Glen Sather: "The game has changed. It's an evolution."