Hockey Night in Canada

NHL targets dangerous plays, but no headshot ban

The NHL general managers have recommended significant changes in hopes of improving player safety, but an automatic penalty for contact with an opposing player's head is not on the table.

The NHL general managers have recommended significant changes in hopes of improving player safety, but an automatic penalty for any contact with an opposing player's head is not on the table.

The league's 30 general managers wrapped up their second day of meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., amid increased attention over the game's safety due to the lengthy concussion absence of the league's top star, and a headline-grabbing hit last week in Montreal.

The league in a general sense is focused on tightening up existing boarding and charging rules rather than creating new ones, and harsher punishment for offenders who skirt the rules.

"There's not support on a widespread basis for a blanket head hit rule, but we are going to look to see if we can come up with a head hit rule in addition to Rule 48 that focuses on dangerous hits, hits when a player is vulnerable or engaged with another player and a third player comes in, our where there's excessive force," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the meetings.

Rule 48 was implemented last offseason to deal with blindside hits in the wake of serious head injuries suffered by Boston centre Marc Savard and Florida forward David Booth.

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby is the biggest name of a number of players who've suffered concussions this season, but Bettman has maintained that a look at data shows that most of those injuries are coming from collisions or hockey plays rather than targeted hits.

The commissioner said there has been a recommendation for longer suspensions and supplemental discipline for head hits and repeat offenders.

One particular area of the rink under examination is below the goal line, where players retrieving pucks along the boards have seemingly become more vulnerable this season.

"We want to look at the force and distance travelled, particularly in that context, as well," Bettman said.

NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell, hinted at the public outcry over Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara's hit on Montreal forward Max Pacioretty last week.

"Our managers looked at all the issues that had been hot buttons for the fans, the media this year," Campbell said. "There's been incidents, as there is every year in certain games that raise the level of intensity in certain markets.

"Our managers looked at the big picture. They're a good group of hockey people with varying experience and a lot of experience, and I think they addressed all the incidents … in the scope of what's good for the game and how we should run things."

Pacioretty suffered a broken vertebra and concussion after being ridden into the stanchion at Bell Centre. The Bruins defenceman was not suspended, with the incident described by league officials as a typical looking hockey play that went terribly awry. 

Toronto general manager Brian Burke told the NHL Network that it's not a realistic goal to eliminate all concussions from the game because of the speed of the game and size of the players, but that the number of incidents can be reduced.

Burke said the problem with automatic type of penalties is that so many incidents differ in context.

The GMs, Bettman said, were loath to make radical changes that would have threatened to undo some of the rules changes made during the lockout that have opened up the game to more skating and offence.

"It's hard to change the game on the fly, that is for sure," said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero. "But I think there's certainly an appetite among the managers to have a safer environment, have the rules followed more aggressively, especially when it comes to boarding and charging ... [and] protecting a vulnerable player.

"Everybody's really open about these things and talking about them."

General managers around the league are also in favour of holding a tougher standard in terms of seemingly minor infractions like hooking and holding, analogous to the standard implemented coming out of the 2005 lockout.

"We want to apply the rules that are in the book more adamantly," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. "Head hits aren't all going to be penalized — some people outside the game want [that for] any contact …it's not really a fair rule to consider given the size of the players and the nature of the game.

"The slamming of players into the boards at times, we just wanted a stronger application of the rule that's there."

May not be enough

Bettman on Monday announced a five-point plan that included initiatives regarding the treatment and diagnosis of concussions, looking at arena safety with respect to boards, glass and stanchions, and studying player equipment for any improvements that can offer protection but prevent injury to players.

The crackdown may not be enough though.

According to the NHL, 44 per cent of the concussions that happened this season before March 1 were the result of legal hits, meaning perhaps the definition of what is deemed a legal check should be looked at.

"It doesn't change the way we feel about head hits being out of the game, zero tolerance for them," said Shero. "At the same time, some of the things moving forward from the last couple of days are going to be a positive step.

"I think we'll make some change for the better."  

As well, clubs and coaches could find themselves penalized in some sense for the actions of their players.

The recommendations will go through a process that includes feedback from a new panel of recent top players to study concussions, and consultation with the NHL Players' Association.

The findings will then be reported back to the general managers in June at the Board of Governors before any final decisions will be made.

The meetings wrap up Wednesday.

With files from The Canadian Press