GMs propose expanding head-shot rule

Updated: June 8, 2011, 11:26 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- In an effort to reduce the number of dangerous blows to the head, NHL general managers are proposing a broader interpretation of Rule 48.

The league originally implemented the rule at the outset of the season to eliminate blindside hits to the head.

Meeting in Boston before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, the GMs recommended eliminating the term 'blindside' from the rule to allow more penalties to be called on a broader range of corresponding hits.

However, the panel again fell short of calling for an all-out ban on blows to the head like many other organizations have, including the NCAA and major junior hockey.

While GMs believe more can be done to protect vulnerable players from dangerous hits, most executives firmly believe the NHL will never outlaw all contact to the head.

"The tightrope we walk is, this is a full-contact sport," said Toronto GM Brian Burke, a former NHL disciplinarian. "It has been since we opened the doors for business. We cannot lose that part of the fabric of our game. What we've got to do is eliminate the most dangerous parts. ... If you go to that rule (eliminating all head contact), you're going to take hitting right out of the game."

The recommendation now falls on the desk of the league's competition committee, a group of players, owners and general managers that deals with issues including rule changes. The committee will meet Monday and can tweak the recommendation or accept it as is before passing it along to the board of governors, who could then pass the rule change into law. The NHL Players' Association also must weigh in before the rule can become law.

The competition committee could also ignore the recommendation entirely, leaving the proposed rule change in limbo. However, that is unlikely given the high priority that the NHL has given to reducing concussions and responding to dangerous blows to the head with stronger punishments.

The board of governors next meets June 21 in New York and it's expected they would be in favor of the rule change.

"I think it is a broadening (of Rule 48), incorporating more of the hits that we don't like to fit within the rule. But now it has to go through its proper channels. We've made the recommendation. We'll meet with the competition committee. We obviously have to get input from the players' association and move this thing forward as the summer moves along," Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said.

Nieuwendyk is part of a four-person blue-ribbon committee that also includes Tampa GM Steve Yzerman and NHL executives Rob Blake and Brendan Shanahan that has been investigating ways to make the game safer without compromising the inherent physicality of the game.

"The teeth of it will be mostly supplemental discipline. You can determine things better on video," Blake said. "We changed the wording very subtly. The different things have change to broad the scope of head hits and not have it so narrow. We tried to broaden with the safety of the players in mind.''

Blake said the blue-ribbon group met twice in person and also had three conference calls since last March, including a four-hour meeting Friday in Vancouver.

"The biggest thing is that it's the evolution of the game," Wings GM Ken Holland, also an NHL governor, told ESPN.com. "Fifty years ago you couldn't pass forward. Now the red line is out. So as the rules of the game evolve, coaches evolve, the players evolve and the size and speed, I think this is going to be an ongoing evolution. We're going to talk every March (GMs meetings) and summer. We came up with Rule 48 and now we're broadening it.

"We're trying to stay in tune with where the game is at and where the game is going. The players are bigger, faster, stronger. The game is more physical. We've obviously had a number of injuries with regards to concussions. And now we're trying to broaden Rule 48 to make it a safer workplace.''

Hockey's inherent violence claimed the sport's spotlight again this week during the Stanley Cup finals. Boston forward Nathan Horton was knocked out for the series in Game 3 on Monday with a severe concussion after a late hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome.

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was pleased the GMs' recommendation.

"I think it was a huge step form 48 in its initial form, which I thought was a huge step," Chiarelli told ESPNBoston.com

The International Ice Hockey Federation, the junior Ontario Hockey League and every European pro league have outlawed all head hits. The NHL has been unwilling to consider such a ban, partly because it would punish players who landed legal hits while making accidental contact with the head of a player who moved or ducked at the last second.

"The game is fast, it's big and it's strong," Ottawa GM Bryan Murray said. "There's a lot of rules in place to open the game up and make it more exciting ... but there's some dangers because of that. We all want hitting in the game, and there will be contact to the head, and it won't be illegal all the time."

Shanahan agreed, echoing NHL disciplinarian Mike Murphy's statements about Rome's Game 3 late hit earlier this week.

Although Rome made contact with Horton's head while delivering a shoulder hit to Horton's chest, Rome was suspended for four games because of the hit's lateness and Horton's serious injury. His contact to Horton's head isn't illegal under Rule 48.

Shanahan declined to discuss whether Rome's contact with Horton's head would have been punished under the new rule, although he felt Rome's hit wasn't "a targeted shot to the head."

"We felt there were too many clean, hard hits that had incidental contact to the head," Shanahan said. "It's the nature of hockey, where you attack bent over, or you turn at the last second. If you want to have bodychecking in hockey, there's going to be incidental contact to the head. It's not just going to be a blanket rule, but at the same time, it's more than we have now."

Concussion safety and head shots have been on NHL rulemakers' minds for several years, but the movement gained new urgency this season when Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Boston's high-scoring Marc Savard also is out for the season with a concussion, joining several players who have incurred serious head injuries in recent years.

"There's a real intent that we want to keep pushing the rules, broadening the language," Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini said. "We don't want to change the nature of the game, but we want to protect players in a bad situation."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Information from ESPNBoston.com's Joe McDonald and James Murphy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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