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NHL GMs to stay course on head shot rule, reject proposal for coach's challenge

Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

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Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

TORONTO - Even though the NHL's general managers sat down with an agenda full of new ideas and buzz items on Tuesday, it was a familiar issue that made the biggest impact.

The managers discussed the new penalty for blindside hits to the head—known as rule 48—and left open the possibility of tweaking it when they sit down together again in March. There is clearly a period of adjustment needed for the league as players adapt to the change.

"It was probably the most important aspect of (the meeting)," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "I think the rule will evolve and without any new rules (being made), it can be moved to the appropriate stage based on what happens over the course of the season."

The overwhelming message to Colin Campbell and his hockey operations staff was to stay the course. They showed video of players backing off hits in a potentially dangerous situation—notably Blues forward David Backes and Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara—and held it up as evidence of progress.

Campbell has received some criticism during the rule's implementation. However, the NHL disciplinarian thinks it's no different than what he went through during a crackdown on obstruction following the lockout.

"We wanted to reinforce with the managers that it's similar to the '05-'06 season," said Campbell. "It was a pretty rocky road the first couple of months. People thought our game was in trouble and we were crazy. We said it's similar.

"We can't forget the big picture, and the big picture is to save careers and reduce this type of concussion."

None of the other items on the agenda are likely to become major discussion points at the longer March meeting—although a proposed change to the all-star game format from league vice-president Brendan Shanahan was met favourably. A source told The Canadian Press that two captains will select the teams for the 2011 all-star game in Carolina rather than having representatives from the Eastern Conference and Western Conference face one another.

The managers shot down Dale Tallon's proposal about creating a coaches' challenge—"it's a dead issue," said Tallon—and decided to revisit Ken Holland's proposed overtime change again in March. The Red Wings GM wants to see overtime extended to eight minutes, with the first half played 4-on-4 and the second half 3-on-3.

Ultimately, that change would need to be made as part of collective bargaining with the NHLPA because it is an employment issue.

One of the more interesting topics of discussion was on social media. The NHL is the only major North American sports league that doesn't have a formal policy governing the use of Twitter and Facebook.

Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney has a number of players active on Twitter, including colourful enforcer Paul Bissonette, and put the topic on the agenda.

"Really the point of talking about it, for all us 50-somethings in there, this whole Twitter/Facebook we don't quite understand it," said Maloney. "And yet this was more a discussion on how do we get ahead of it? We don't want to discourage the personalities, we want the personalities.

"Paul Bissonette is a great story and a great personality, but there's certain lines that you can't cross."

Maloney indicated that the Coyotes have drafted their own set of guidelines and shared them with the other managers.

It's an issue that was of interest to many in the room, including Washington Capitals GM George McPhee, who remembers Donald Brashear announcing on Twitter two years ago that he was a healthy scratch for a playoff game.

"We've discussed it a lot and certainly there should be a policy talking about your club," said McPhee. "We had a player disclose during a playoff game that he wasn't going to be dressed that night. So the other team had a pretty good idea of what our lineup was going to be."

The annual fall meeting is intended to give GMs a chance to discuss issues and lay the groundwork for some of the topics that will come up again in March. From there, they can make recommendations for any rule changes or tweaks.

It's clear the biggest thing on the group's radar in the spring will be the evolution of the penalty on head hits. Four players have received supplemental discipline as a result of rule 48—including San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton, who disagreed with the two-game suspension he was given last week.

Even though there's been some confusion in the first few weeks of the season, the GMs sound committed to keeping the penalty.

"In general, we feel the league is doing the right things to protect the players in that situation," said Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley. "You have to protect them. And you have to do it without changing the basic structure of the game and I think that's been done."

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