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Players concerned over hits to head

3/9/2009 - NHL

NAPLES, Fla. -- Fighting may be the sexy issue at the NHL general managers meetings, but the other issue generating discussion Monday was the players' appeal for a new penalty to be introduced to cut down on players' head-hunting each other under the guise of clean hockey hits.

If the players get their way, it's the kind of change that may ultimately have a longer-lasting impact than any changes to the league's stand on fighting, given the concern over head injuries around the NHL.

Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, along with director of player affairs Glenn Healy, met with the league's 30 GMs and league officials for about an hour Monday morning. Although they shared the players' views on a number of issues relating to both on- and off-ice issues, the proposal for a new rule to crack down on head checks was the most important message they brought to the meeting.

"That is probably the most significant concern on the part of the players," Kelly said after the meeting. "I would say better than three-quarters of the players believe we need a new rule on hits to the head that protect players."

League officials believe many of the calls currently being made by referees do address issues of high hits, whether it's elbowing, boarding or hitting from behind. Still, the union believes there is a need to address the issue of players who are in a vulnerable position, with their heads down, and are drilled by opposing players.

By the letter of the rule book, a shoulder to the head in such a fashion is legal, but the potential for a long-term injury from such a hit has led players to ask the league to look into trying to penalize those hits out of the game.

"We're not looking at all hits to the head. There are accidental and inadvertent hits," Kelly said. "You do have situations where you have large players, 6-foot-9 guys hitting players that are 5-6, and they are going to make contact with the head.

"We are talking about the unsuspecting player who is in a vulnerable position who gets hit from a player who either intentionally or recklessly targets the head of that player and whether he strikes him with his shoulder or some other body part. It is the view of the players that those types of hits need to be eliminated from the game.

Added Kelly: "You give the officials a menu of choices. It's a minor if there's no injury, it can be a major if there is an injury, or if it's a particularly violent hit, or if it's an intent to injure, it's a match penalty."

There are a number of issues connected to this that will make implementation more than a little complicated. First, trying to assess recklessness and intent to injure in a game played at an already frenetic pace will put additional pressure on the referees.

"It talks about deliberately targeting, so I think it's a hard standard for the officials right away because intent comes into it, but I think our officials can handle that," Toronto GM Brian Burke said.

Where the issue becomes more than a little fuzzy is what, given the players' concerns, constitutes a legal hit and what does not.

For instance, there remains some debate about whether classic hits in the past (Scott Stevens on Eric Lindros in 2000 and on Paul Kariya in 2003) would be considered fouls under the new rule, should it be adopted by the league.

Some GMs suggested such rules in other leagues have seen the overall physicality in the game reduced, something most GMs are loath to introduce to the NHL equation.

"In the leagues where they've put in a rule to eliminate blows to the head, it's reduced hitting," Burke said. "I was at a college game last weekend. Two times, a player threw a really solid body check, happened to make contact with the head, no injury, nothing like that, and they still bounced the guy.

"I think it's eliminated or hurt body contact in the [Ontario Hockey League]. I know that people there will say it hasn't. I don't agree."

What is perhaps most telling about the players' suggestion is they don't believe that simply educating them about respecting their opponents will do the trick. The fact the players believe they need to institutionalize such a rule suggests a significant disregard for each other's welfare.

"You can't do it simply by preaching respect to players, you have to put more teeth into it, you have to deter this type of conduct," Kelly said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.