Mike Richards lies on the ice following a hit by Marc-Andre Gragnani. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
BOSTON – Nobody is really sure exactly what the GMs spent five hours discussing Wednesday afternoon when it comes to head shots, largely because they were being deliberately vague, but we know two things emerged from their meeting.
First, despite its claims that player safety is paramount, the NHL is perfectly fine with the prospect of players still being carted off the ice on stretchers. Second, if Aaron Rome drills a player in the head the way he did to Nathan Horton in Game 3, he won’t be suspended provided the victim is carrying the puck or less time has lapsed between his pass and Rome lowering the boom.
The NHL continues to tweak its head shot rule, all the while claiming it’s making the game safer for its players. Apparently it considers this tiptoeing and lack of willingness to ban head shots outright as a form of progress.
“If you took that (Rome hit) back, put the puck on his stick, that hit is there,” said director of hockey operations, Rob Blake, who was part of the league’s “blue-ribbon panel” along with Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk to guide the league on head shots. “That’s where we talk about the legal contact to the head. There are situations where there are big hits in the game and by no means do we want to take those out. Those are the ones that are full, clear body-contact hits. The ones where the head is targeted, those are going to be looked at.”
Until they run their recommendation past the competition committee next Monday, all parties involved were short on specifics. But there is the notion that Rule 48 was broadened. It appears now the north-south aspect of the rule will be abolished if the head is targeted and is the principal point of contact.
“Blind-side has been taken out as far as terminology,” said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. “And there will be more focus on hits to the head that will be penalized more.”
Which means when it comes to head shots, the league still can’t get beyond the notion that if it bans all hits to the head the way the Ontario League has done, it will reduce the league to four-on-four ringette.
“Why should we (have an outright ban on head shots),” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “If you have an otherwise legal hit that results in contact to the head, that’s part of the game and always has been. If you go to that rule, you’re going to take hitting right out of the game.”
Burke said he has monitored the OHL, which banned all head shots this season, and isn’t satisfied it hasn’t reduced hitting significantly. Those who run major junior franchises would argue otherwise and as Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller once said, nobody wants to take hitting out of the game, they just want to take stupid hits out of the game.
“This wouldn’t be like the OHL rule and some of the international rules,” Shanahan said. “This wouldn’t just be a blanket rule where any contact to the head is illegal. It’s not quite that far, but at the same time it’s more than what we have right now.”
In its first season of implementation, there were eight suspensions for hits that fell under the purview of Rule 48 and two of them were rescinded. GMs and league officials weren’t forthcoming when asked which hits from this season would have been deemed illegal under the new rule. Burke said his interpretation of the proposed new rule would not have penalized Raffi Torres for his hit on Brent Seabrook in the first round because it was a north-south hit.
All of which makes all of this just as confusing as ever. For years, the powers that be in hockey haven’t been able to even come up with a consensus on what actually should be deemed a head shot. Any hit to the head might be a good place to start. But it appears the men who hold the most power in the league to make change, and they all think they’re doing the best thing for the game, are unwilling to do anything drastic…ever.
Consider that Shanahan, Blake, Yzerman and Nieuwendyk are considered the brightest, most progressive young minds in the game. If they’re not willing to do what it takes to seriously curb head shots, there’s really no hope anyone will.
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