2010: The year of the head shot

In the sixth instalment of CBCSports.ca's year-end retrospective, senior hockey writer Tim Wharnsby looks at one of the biggest stories of 2010: the blindside-hit-to-the-head controversy that gripped the NHL and how the league responded to the problem.

NHL introduced Rule #48 to deal with blindsided hits

For now, this entire blindside-hit-to-the-head hullabaloo has died down.

Particularly when you consider the strong remarks made by Joe Thornton, his San Jose teammates and Sharks management when Jumbo Joe was tapped for a two-game suspension for his shoulder hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward David Perron earlier this season.

Thornton claimed it was a north-south body check. Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle suggested it was a matter of the four-inch, 30-pound disparity between the bigger Thornton and the smaller Perron. There were accusations that Perron, who scored a few shifts later, sold the penalty by staying on the ice longer than needed.

Thornton unsuccessfully appealed the suspension. And because the incident occurred on Nov. 4, a few days before NHL general managers met in Toronto, the Sharks wanted answers. They simply felt there was too much confusion regarding new Rule #48. But everyone seemed satisfied following the GM meeting.

Rule 48 - Illegal check to the head

48.1 Illegal check to the head — A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.

48.2 Minor penalty — There is no provision for a minor penalty for this rule.

48.3 Major penalty — For a violation of this rule, a major penalty shall be assessed (see 48.4).

48.4 Game misconduct — An automatic game misconduct penalty shall be assessed whenever a major penalty is assessed under this rule.

48.5 Match penalty — The referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent with an illegal check to the head.

48.6 Fines and Suspensions — Any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular league or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.

If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the commissioner at his discretion.

The reason? Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy of the NHL's hockey operations department reported that nightly they have witnessed occurrences where players let up on their opponent when skating in from the blindside. The message was getting through.

In fact, two days after Perron was knocked into la-la land (even though he finished that game, he has missed the Blues' past 21 games with a concussion), his teammate, David Backes, exhibited perfectly that you could still deliver a hard body check from the blindside without slamming into an opponent's head.

Backes is one of the game's most physical players. He ranks 17th in hits this season. Yet, in a game against the New York Rangers on Nov. 7, he had Artem Anisinov in the trolley tracks, but avoided making contact with his head.

"I think we get them every night, in which a player recognizes he's in that lateral blindside position to hit a guy and doesn't do it or makes sure he doesn't make head contact," said Murphy, the NHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations.

"What concerns us is three criteria: it has to be lateral, it has to be blindside and it has to be to the head."

Headshots have been a topic of debate in hockey for more than a decade.

We've seen junior leagues simply outlaw checks to the head. The NHL, however, resists change the way Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson opposes modesty. But after 10 years of talking about head shots, the league finally decided to add a blindside head-shot rule after Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards decked Florida Panthers forward David Booth a year ago.

When NHL GMs met in Toronto 13 months ago, they opened up to the idea of a head-shot penalty. Four months later and another devastating hit — Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on Boston's Marc Savard — before their next get-together, they unanimously approved supplementary discipline for blindside head shots with the promise that an on-ice penalty would be in place for 2010-11.

Booth wound up missing 45 games. Savard was out for 24 regular-season and playoff games. He returned to action last spring, but still didn't feel right and only recently suited up again after missing the first 23 games this season.

Thornton excluded, the players appear to have a handle on Rule #48. The adjustment period has been immediate, especially if you rewind your memory bank to coming out of the lockout and the crackdown on hooking and holding. Remember the 15 power-play games?

There is a reason for this: blindside head shots, although one is too many, have not been as rampant in hockey as obstruction. How many hooks or holds did you see in a game in the pre-lockout era? Hundreds. And how many blindside headshots in a season? Maybe 25.

But if players can learn to stop targeting the head from the blindside this swiftly — and the game doesn't appear to be any softer, does it? — then why not protect the head from the front, too? After all, there are penalties in place to safeguard knees, so why not heads from all sides?