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Proposed change to head-shot rule doesn't go far enough

Nathan Horton was knocked out of the Stanley Cup final and Aaron Rome was suspended four games for a hit in Game 3. (Getty Images)

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Nathan Horton was knocked out of the Stanley Cup final and Aaron Rome was suspended four games for a hit in Game 3. (Getty Images)

BOSTON – The NHL has essentially taken one word out of Rule 48 and believes it will go a long way toward making players safer.

In a change that was endorsed by the competition committee Monday afternoon, the league will basically take the word “blindside” out of the lexicon when it comes to applying the rule that governs head shots in the NHL. The league and the players who endorsed the rule feel it goes far enough to address player safety and reduce concussions in the future.

I respectfully disagree.

Now, if a player hits an opponent with a north-south hit and that player is defenseless, the hitter will be suspended. And all indications are that the league will have a mandate to come down much harder on those convicted of head shots than it did in the past.

Those are great developments. No question about it.

But everyone involved said there would still be “grey areas” when it comes to hits to the head and as long as they’re talking about grey areas, those in charge will continue to put players’ grey matter at risk.

For example, the Aaron Rome hit on Nathan Horton, if not for the lateness of it, would be perfectly acceptable under the new Rule 48. If a player is reaching for a loose puck and puts himself into a vulnerable position and gets drilled, he’ll likely still be getting carried off on a stretcher and the hitter will go unpunished.

It’s true this new legislation, which goes before the league’s board of governors June 21, will cut down on a lot more of the “stupid hits” Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller has railed against in the past. (Miller is now a member of the competition committee and participated in the meeting via telephone from Los Angeles. I would have loved to ask him in person whether he thought the recommendations went far enough.) There is little doubt the newly worded rule will go a long way toward throwing the book at predatory hitters who target the head of defenseless players.

But until the league endorses a total ban regardless of intent, players will continue to be concussed by head shots and, the betting is, the debate will continue to rage.

“I think the big issue was whether or not we were all on the same page and clearly (the players) were, so that helps,” said Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, both a member of the competition committee and the NHL’s “blue ribbon” panel charged with examining changes to Rule 48. “People have to realize the goal in all of this was to make the game safer. We don’t like some of the hits that we see and we don’t like some of the results of those hits. Concussions are hard to ignore.”

Indeed. And, if you listen to the players and GMs, concussions are just as difficult to abolish. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that a total ban on head shots will not seriously alter the way the game is played. That’s how I feel. That’s how Ontario League commissioner David Branch, one of the most progressive voices in the game, also feels. Clearly, those who are in positions of power at the NHL feel differently.

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“We tried to clean it up and make it a little more black and white, but there’s always going to be grey areas because it’s a physical game and things happen,” Nieuwendyk said.

One NHL observer said the original Rule 48 was designed to abolish between 15 and 20 hits per season and predicted the alterations would result in “a lot more” being deemed outside the rulebook.

That might be true, but it’s still troubling to know the league and its players, through their actions Monday, have basically admitted there will still be hits where players’ brains will be severely damaged and the offender goes unpunished.

That they had a chance to do even more about it and chose not to is a blight on the game.

PIERRE MCGUIRE PROSPECTS

Speculation at the Stanley Cup final is that hockey analyst Pierre McGuire could be leaving TSN to take a permanent position as an analyst with NBC and Versus.

McGuire already does work for both networks, but it’s believed NBC and Versus would prefer to have him on an exclusive basis. One scenario that has been floated is McGuire would leave TSN as a regular game analyst, but would do some special events, such as the World Junior Championship, for the Canadian network.

Talks are continuing and will likely be resolved soon. When asked about prospects for his future and his contract status with both TSN and NBC/Versus, McGuire declined comment.

McGuire’s name has also surfaced in NHL front office chatter in the past. He was a finalist for the Minnesota Wild GM job that ultimately went to Chuck Fletcher in 2009. Until the Ottawa Senators renewed Bryan Murray’s contract after the season, there was speculation McGuire would be that team’s new GM. To a lesser degree, the same speculation arose before Pierre Gauthier took over for Bob Gainey with the Montreal Canadiens in February, 2010.

 

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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