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McKenzie: Which way does the NHL go in the headshot debate?

Bob McKenzie
3/11/2011 6:10:11 PM
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It has been a fascinating week in the NHL, especially on the crime and punishment front. The Chara-Pacioretty situation is, hour by hour and day by day, evolving and it remains to be seen what impact it may have on how the game is played and/or governed.

Certainly, when an influential owner such as Montreal's Geoff Molson writes an open letter advocating a significant change - owners, as opposed to general managers, being more proactive on rule changes and setting the agenda of how the game is played - it represents a whole new dynamic and much uncertainty.

All of this is unfolding on the eve of annual NHL GM meetings, which take place Monday through Wednesday in Boca Raton, Fla. The following story and the research for it was completed prior to Chara-Pacioretty. It remains to seen what the fallout will be on the events of the last week, but none of that should serve to diminish the issues and how the GMs intended to deal with them. Nevertheless, it was important to simply note the frame of reference for this story and the research were completed prior to Chara-Pacioretty.

The NHL general managers will gather in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday for three days of meetings. There will be many items concerning the game that will be discussed but the one that is guaranteed to garner more coverage than any other is that of the issue of hits to the head, concussions and the league's rules to combat them.

This comes as no surprise to anyone. Concussions in hockey appear to be epidemic. And there has barely been a week gone by since a year ago at this time, when the NHL introduced Rule 48 to penalize blindside hits to the head, that hits to the head/concussions/Rule 48 haven't been at the forefront of any issue-oriented hockey discussion.

It's gotten to the point where there's a certain level of battle fatigue for many in the game and also many fans when it comes to the subject of concussions and head hits.

It's a fast, physical game that has only gotten faster and more physical and some would suggest it's never been more dangerous to play than it is right now.

But hockey has always been an inherently dangerous, physical game and many would argue that's never going to change.

Yet if many are weary of the head-checking debate and the mere mention of the word concussion causes eyes to glaze over, no one disputes that it's not going away, not in hockey or football or anywhere else.

Societal and medical standards and pressures are going to keep the issue of brain trauma at the forefront, probably for years to come.

So the GMs in Boca will dutifully discuss it, which raises the question: Where do we go from here? Where, specifically, does the NHL go?

There are no easy answers, but TSN went looking for them nonetheless.

We reached out to all 30 NHL general managers to try to get some sense of their collective mindset as they prepare to meet to discuss this and other issues.

This is far too complex a subject to make easy generalizations but we have attempted to frame the issue in some very broad terms to get a barometer of where they're at. The GMs, keep in mind, are effectively the gatekeepers for the game. That isn't to say the players, via the NHL Players' Association and/or the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee, don't have a huge say in how the game is played. And NHL owners have ultimate power as any recommendations from the GMs require approval by the board of governors before they become law.

But it is the GMs who set the agenda on rule changes and have the greatest impact on how the game is played and governed on everything from rules to suspensions.

In individual phone calls with every GM in the league -- and all 30 responded -- they were asked to classify which position currently comes closest to representing their feelings on the issue of head hits and where the league is going next.

Three options or, for purposes of this exercise, three doors were available to them and the only provision was that their standing would be chronicled anonymously.

Door No. 1 was the status quo. That is to say it represents a level of satisfaction with what the NHL has done with Rule 48 as well as other penalites/suspensions for hits to the head with no strong desire to make any further changes at this time.

Door No. 2 was the extreme position that any hit to the head, whether intentional or unintentional, is unacceptable and illegal and should be punished at the very least with a two-minute head-checking minor penalty, a rule that currently exists in the Ontario Hockey League, U.S. college hockey, International Ice Hockey Federation games and youth hockey in North America.

Door No. 3 was the vast middle ground in between the other two doors, where the only position is that "something more" needs to be acted upon now by the league. Precisely what "more" means was left to the discretion of the GMs who opted for this door and, as you will see, they weren't shy about elaborating on what "more" means specifically to them.

So here are the results:

Ten GMs opted for the status quo of Door No. 1; two chose the extreme position of Door No. 2 and 15 opted for the wide middle ground of Door No. 3; three GMs either couldn't or wouldn't pigeon hole themselves in one category or another, although they were more than happy to offer some perspectives on the issue and what concerns them about it and the ongoing debate.

What we can conclude is that with a total of 17 of 30 GMs classifying themselves as not entirely satisfied with the status quo, the ground would appear to be relatively fertile for change. That said, there are no guarantees that change comes swiftly or decisively. But if there was an overriding theme to the discussion, it was clearly how open-minded so many of the GMs were to hear both sides of any equation.

For example, of the 15 GMs who chose Door No. 3, almost half of them, without provocation, said they would be interested in hearing the arguments for Door No. 2 and perhaps could be swayed more in that direction, for example, than the status quo.

But anyone who's been around GM meetings in the past knows there is a significant aversion to knee-jerk reactions, especially on an issue of this significance and one where there's been quite a media feeding frenzy.

"We have to do what's right for the game, not our individual teams and certainly not because the media is pressuring us to do something," one NHL GM, sounding a popular refrain.

So let's try to characterize the sentiment behind each of the three doors:

Door No. 1: The most common comment from this group of nine was that "we haven't even had one full season of Rule 48 and we really need to let this evolve before we go barging ahead with other things. It's a work in progress. Let's see where it goes."

Another offered the following evaluation:

"There is no question in my mind, because I've seen it on multiple occasions this season, players are modifying their behaviour because of Rule 48. I recently saw Matt Cooke turn away from a hit when he had the guy lined up, so it is having an impact. That's not to say we can't have more debate and follow up. We just need to move cautiously now."

Even those who may have previously been regarded as hard-liners on the head-hit issue acknowledge there needs to be ongoing dialogue because of the gravity of the issue.

But that isn't to say there aren't some who wonder if the league hasn't already overreacted.

"I'm not even sure I am entirely comfortable with the new blindside hit (Rule 48) rule," one GM said. "I believe a player has to be responsible at all times to keep his head up and be aware of the danger around him. You can't ask players to let up on their checks. It's a physical game. I don't want to see people get hurt but I don't want to see us put in a lot of rules where the player stops being responsible for keeping his head up. I think that will lead to even more injuries."

Unquestionably, that issue -- how much onus is on the hitter versus the hittee -- is a constant source of debate amongst GMs. That's why Rule 48 on the blindside hits was, in the eyes of the GM, such a groundbreaking step. It was the first time in the history of the game that the league transferred the responsibility for being hit to the player doing the hitting.

Door No. 2: Only two GMs walked through this portal and they acknowledged the group is probably not ready to accept such an extreme position as a penalty for any hit to the head, but they also suggested there's an air of inevitability, that at some point in the future, whether it's three years or five years or 10 years, it will be unacceptable in pro sports to hit anyone in the head, citing societal, governmental and medical pressures to protect the brains of all people, including elite athletes who ply their trade in dangerous games where high levels of risk are assumed.

The critics of this zero-tolerance policy on head hits fear it will lead to the demise of physical play in the NHL, but the proponents aren't as certain the fabric of the pro hockey game is necessarily at risk.

"I'm just not convinced of that," one GM said. "But it's a good discussion to have. This isn't a crusade, it's just an individual opinion, so let's not be afraid to at least talk about it."

Another GM said the lesson learned from Rule 48 and the intense level of debate on what's a blindside hit and what isn't -- and the referees' ability to correctly make that judgment call on the ice -- is why the universal head checking penalty should be considered. It's hard, the GM said, to get consistency but if every hit to the head is illegal, there would be less gray area and the players would ultimately adjust.

No one thinks for a moment this is a realistic short term possibility but it was interesting to hear a number of GMs in the middle ground area say they are at least intrigued by the notion of discussing a total ban on head hits and want more and better information on how it works in the OHL and other leagues.

"Most of our information we're getting on this is anecdotal," one GM said. "Someone said they saw this game or that game and this is what happened in a single game. I'd like to get some real hard information, maybe study the OHL game to see if there has been a big dropoff in hitting or what it's meant to them in reducing head injuries. I don't think any of us see enough OHL or college hockey to present a true picture of what it's actually like now with these rules in place."

Door No. 3: Exactly half the GMs in the NHL made this choice and, to varying degrees, opined that more is better. As in the NHL should continue to take further steps in the war against head hits and concussions, that more than the status quo is required.

Not surprisingly, there was a wide variance on the definition of “more” but what absolutely came through from repeated comments was there's a growing sentiment for handing out tougher suspensions. Historically, most GMs have had an aversion to long suspensions, or “super” suspensions, as some like to call them. That worm appears to be turning based on our research.

"The key for me is intent,” one GM said. “If we have the same guys hitting high over and over again, and we all know who they are, we can't be giving these guys the benefit of the doubt and we really need to slap some hard suspensions on them."

“We need to start whacking guys harder with tougher suspensions for the head hits we deem to be bad hit,” another added.

Some said they favor as much as double-digit suspensions in cases where it's clear the head has been targeted.

But there were a tremendous array of opinions on which direction the league should be moving towards.

Some want to see Rule 48 broadened to include not just blindside hits to the head but to come up with criteria that would deal with some forms of the traditional north-south hit to the head that, in some instances, is still very much legal in the NHL. More of a 360 degree approach or protection for players.

“You can have a north-south hit where the hitter goes for the head at the last second and the player getting hit has no way to defend himself,” a GM said. “Just because it's north-south doesn't automatically mean it's any less damaging or sneaky than a blindside hit.”

No one who chose Door No. 3 is suggesting every north-south head contact should be penalized but did say just as the GMs worked on very specific criteria on the blindside hit, the same exercise needs to be rolled out for some of the dangerous north-south varieties.

One GM said the league doesn't need any more new rules on head hits so much as it needs to perhaps reinforce the existing rules on elbowing, charging, interference, boarding and checking from behind, suggesting the rule book currently spells out some fairly specific action on hits to the head but that perhaps there needs to be a greater emphasis on referees calling them.

The whole issue of “transfer of responsibility” from the hittee to the hitter will also be explored and while some are saying they must proceed with caution on that front, others note that the game is so fast now that old “keep your head up” standards from previous eras are tougher to apply now.

“It's so fast now,” one GM said. “It's almost impossible now for a player, in every situation on the ice, to not get caught with his head down sometimes.”

One GM said the battle on head hits may be less about new anti-headshot legislation and more about  reviewing the rules package put in after the lockout to improve the pace of the game. Mission accomplished on the speed of the game, but many GMs believe taking out the red line, putting in the trapezoid that prevents goalies from handling the puck have contributed to the rash of big hits and concussions.

But as staunchly as some of the GMs argue for doing “more” - whatever more turns out to be - they all acknowledge improvement is a double-edged sword that can come back to haunt you. The more rules that are instituted, the GMs said, the more players will use trickery and fakery, if necessary, to gain an advantage and make a mockery of some well-intentioned efforts.

“We have to be so careful,” a GM said. “So careful. That's why a complete ban on any contact to the head will not get a lot of traction. The minute you put that in, players will be snapping their head back to draw penalties. Players who aren't seriously injured will drop to the ice and stay there to draw the major penalty. Everyone is in favor of getting rid of concussions but just wait until your team loses a game or a playoff series on a phantom head-checking penalty. There are no easy answers."

Another GM said he's not in favor of making any rule changes until the league, and the Players' Association, make sure everything has been done to provide as safe a work environment as possible, citing boards and glass, shoulder pads and elbow pads and helmet technology as areas where more can be done before messing around with the way the game is played.

For all the flak the NHL takes on the issue of head shots/concussions, it was clearly apparent from our interview process that a great many of the NHL GMs do sincerely care about this issue, and are now recognizing the need to be more proactive but also note there are many pitfalls associated with rushing headlong into new rules or action.

And many of them couldn't stress enough how “open-minded” they now are, whether they opted for Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3.

But they also realize the game is inherently dangerous and you can't legislate concussions out of hockey.

"Let's not kid ourselves," one GM said. "The fact Sidney Crosby has been out a long time with a concussion is a huge part of what's happening right now. And I feel terrible Sidney is injured and our game needs him playing. But he got hurt on what I believe was an accidental collision. It's a fast game played by big people in a small area. There are going to be concussions. We can try to reduce the number but we're never going to get rid of them."

Bob McKenzie

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