NAPLES, Fla. - While fighting will be the hot-button discussion item at the NHL general managers' meeting over the next three days, NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly says hits to the head remain the No. 1 concern of NHL players.
"I'm not saying there shouldn't be discussion about safety measures with regards to fighting," Kelly said, "but our membership is very clear on what they feel is most important, and that is hits to the head."
Kelly and NHLPA director of player affairs Glenn Healy made a 60-minute presentation to the NHL GMs this morning and while their address covered a wide array of topics and issues, Kelly went so far as to suggest the league should go to a modified head-checking penalty, modeled on existing rule No. 44, which currently deals with hitting from behind.
"We would like the referees to have a menu of options if one player intentionally and recklessly targets the head of another unsuspecting player, the same as when there is a hit from behind," Kelly said. "We realize (head) hits like this are currently dealt with (in supplementary discipline with fines and/or suspensions) but we think it should be a specific rule that encourages the referee to call a minor or a major depending upon the severity and circumstances."
Kelly was quick to point out the NHLPA is not in favor of a blanket head-checking penalty that penalizes any contact to the head, which is currently in place in the Ontario Hockey League, U.S. college hockey, international hockey and youth hockey. He said there could still be "incidental" shoulder contact to the head that would go unpenalized, but believes a new rule would offer more protection to "unsuspecting" players who are targeted with a hit to the head because the in-game penalty would make teams pay for reckless behavior, not just the player who is suspended or fined.
In addition to the head-checking issue, Kelly and Healy raised a number of other issues from the NHLPA perspective:
Kelly wants to see if NHL players may be able to participate in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. The tight turnaround of the NHL schedule break may currently prevent that, but the NHLPA believes it would be a wonderful marketing opportunity for NHL players to be included as part of the Olympics' opening ceremonies as a number of them could end up as flag bearers for their respective countries.
Kelly is proposing that when the NHL and NHLPA stage their joint-venture World Cup of Hockey tournament that it be held in February during an Olympic-type NHL regular-season shutdown. While the league doesn't like to interrupt the NHL regular season for international competition, Kelly said there are many advantages to staging the World Cup in mid-season as opposed to playing it in the pre-season in late August or early September.
Kelly reinforced that NHL players remain committed to Olympic participation, even though the NHL's commitment to the Olympic movement does not go beyond Vancouver in 2010.
Kelly is seeking to determine exactly how far the NHL is going with the "proportionalization" of goalie equipment. The NHL's next step is to come up with some sort of formula that would tailor the size of goalie equipment to the actual size of the goalie. The NHL has already begun measuring goaltenders arms, legs, waists, torsos etc. to come up with a plan to "proportionalize" goalie equipment. It would be fair to say the NHLPA has concerns on this concept and is seeking further information before signing off on any changes.
Kelly said some NHL players are open to "safety measures" for players who are engaged in a fight, notably the OHL-style rule that penalizes players for taking off their helmets to fight or that fights are stopped once a helmet comes off, but would wait to see what the GMs decide before committing to anything.
The NHL GMs are meeting today, tomorrow and Wednesday. After Kelly and Healy addressed the GMs, the GMs broke into smaller working groups to deal with a plethora of game-related issues. The GMs will continue in their smaller working groups until mid-morning tomorrow, at which time they will re-assemble as a large group to decide what recommendations, if any, they would make on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Fighting, and associated safety measures, will be the dominant topic, but other significant topics include the goaltenders' equipment and "proportionalization."
There will also be a lot of discussion on a myriad of other things, including: having the Zamboni scrape the entire ice surface immediately before overtime as opposed to a partial scrape just prior to the shootout; how the league deals with players who choose not to accept All-Star Game invitations; making the number of regulation-time victories, instead of total wins, the first tiebreaker in the standings; changing the rule on a delayed penalty to force the penalized time to clear the defensive zone, as opposed to simply gaining possession, before the whistle is blown; the use of the "bear hug" hit into the boards to prevent injury; a modified icing rule; not allowing players to leave their feet to block a shot; one-minute penalties in overtime; hand passes; and retaining salary as part of trades.