The National Hockey League's general managers took a stride towards eliminating blindside headshots from the game, even if those hits have been deemed legal by the current rule book.
The GMs concluded two days of meetings in Toronto on Wednesday. They departed having agreed to set up a subcommittee of GMs to further delve into the controversial blindside headshot matter when they gather next in March.
This new committee will break from the regular group, review and examine information supplied from the league’s hockey operations department, and then report to the others.
A recommendation on a possible rule change, however, will likely not occur until their meeting in June. Even then, the joint NHL-NHLPA competition committee would have to agree with the GMs, and then the league’s board of governors would have to approve the proposed rule change in the summer.
"I think I heard today that we want to redraw the line, but there won’t be consensus on where we want to draw that line," Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey said. "But we’re moving in the right direction."
Richards' hit pushes issue front and centre
The issue of headshots has been around at various NHL GM gatherings since 2000. The most recent on-ice incident that brought it back to the forefront was the blindside open-ice bodycheck that Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards put on Florida Panthers sniper David Booth on Oct. 24.
Richards received a five-minute interference major and a game misconduct, but was given no further supplementary discipline because the league determined his hit was clean or legal. Booth is still out with a concussion.
"When an item keeps coming back to the agenda, it shows we need to make an adjustment," Gainey said. "I think everyone agrees more needs to be done."
Gainey quoted a statistic he heard in the meeting that about 750-man-games had been lost to concussions out of a possible 40,000 man-games last season.
"That works out to 1.8 per cent, which put it in a different perspective," Gainey said.
Even hardliners like Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and his Washington Capitals counterpart George McPhee agreed that it is time for a change.
"I think we all like where the game is with its speed, intensity and skill," McPhee said. "But there are some hits that we should take a look at to protect the players more. We had a cursory discussion of it today, and in March we’ll have a real good discussion to see if there is something we can tweak to protect the players."
"Hockey is a rough sport and it is never going to be a safe workplace," Burke added. "But when a player can’t avoid a hit or be prepared for a hit, then you have to deliver your hit somewhere other than the head."
Burke buys into Messier's idea
Burke and others were enthused about a helmet innovation by former player Mark Messier. The ex-Rangers captain has developed a helmet that uses technological advances to make the inside more protective and disperse the force of hits.
About a half-dozen current NHLers are wearing the helmet, including Ottawa Senators defenceman Chris Phillips, Carolina Hurricanes blueliner Aaron Ward and Capitals forward Matt Bradley.
Burke stated he has ordered enough helmets for the Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies. Messier hopes to see more players donning the new protection, but he has witnessed a reluctance from players to try something new.
The GMs also want to take a look at the density of the gigantic shoulder pads being worn by players in today’s game. As they did with the elbow pad four years ago, they hope to eliminate the hard plastic areas of shoulder pads in favour of softer protection.
Again, shoulder hits to heads are legal, but making the pads softer may be a way to lessen the impact of a hit to the head.
Speedy game + bigger players = injuries
The game has opened up with some rule changes after the 2004-05 lockout and this has made the game swifter than ever. Add the fact that players are bigger and better skaters now and have improved training methods, one of the by-products has been the game is probably more dangerous than ever.
“Everybody is concerned about player safety in hockey,” Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis said. “It’s a question of what lengths we should go. These are complicated issues and I think this group is well on its way to sorting this out.”
"It's not that we want to take out hitting, we want to make it safer and reduce man-games lost," added NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell.
Finally, the lack of respect issue among current players compared to yesteryear has often been brought up when discussing headshots. Gainey, however, doesn’t buy the argument.
"I really feel that trying to relate the different eras is a touchy business," he said. "There has been an evolution in how the game is played on the ice and we need to recognize that we need to evolve along with the rules and make the players safer."
Gainey would like to see other injury matters, such as the increased frequency of severe cuts from skate blades — Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov suffered earlier this season and the one Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward sustained last weekend — investigated.
The Canadiens GM also would like to see more players wear protection on their skate boots to guard against the number of foot ailments suffered from the increased importance of players blocking shots in today’s game.