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On March 7, 2010, in a game against the Penguins, Bruins' forward Marc Savard took a shot on net and continued to cut across the offensive zone. He was then hammered by a blindside hit to the head from the Pens' Matt Cooke. It was an unforgettable moment that would cause a significant change in NHL policy.
Cooke, a two-time prior offender when it came to headshots, was not penalized on the play, nor was he given a suspension afterwards. Savard, a two-time NHL All-Star with two 90-point-plus seasons, was temporarily knocked unconscious, sprawled out on the ice for several minutes before being carried off on a stretcher with a grade-two concussion, missing the rest of the season.
The hit caused a tidal wave of reaction across the league.
"I didn't like the hit when I saw it - and still don't," says TSN hockey analyst Ray Ferraro. "I believe that if Cooke wanted to make contact with Savard's body he could have."
"It's pretty obvious that was definitely a dirty hit," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien at the time. "That's probably the classic blind-side hit to the head."
Bruins forward Mark Recchi didn't pull any verbal punches either, calling it a "very cheap hit".
The hit quickly re-ignited the debate of head shots in the hockey community.
"Shortly after that hit, text messages and emails from players, coaches and GMs started to pour in," says TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger. "Reaction was almost instant and the debate over whether or not this type of hit needed to be removed from the game was renewed."
Even Cooke's teammate - and one of the league's marquee names - weighed in with a strong opinion on headshots.
"At some point there's got to be a clear indication from the league because we've seen this so many times now," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "You don't like to see anyone, their own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that. That was scary."
NHL vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell had a tough decision to make following the Cooke hit on Savard. The hit certainly warranted a review, but was it suspension-worthy? Cooke had not even been penalized for the hit; the fact was that there was no hard rule that spoke directly to the blindside hit to the head.
"No one likes when a player like Marc Savard goes down the way he did. No one likes when a player like (the Panthers') David Booth goes down the way he did," Campbell said at the time. "But we have to be consistent."
The Flyers' Mike Richards had landed a similar blindside hit on Booth the previous October, and no suspension had been given out in that case either. Campbell ruled that precedence prevented him from penalizing Cooke.
Needless to say, the Bruins', and many throughout the league, were not pleased.
"I'm both surprised and angered," said GM Peter Chiarelli after the decision. "It's really disappointing."
"A guy like that has to be suspended," Julien said. "That's the way I see it because it's an elbow to the head from the blind side, and that's exactly the example they show, what we've got to get out of this game. We got a guy who's got a concussion, our best player, and he's going to be out for a while. He was out on the ice for a bit and that's unacceptable."
The outrage that ensued prompted the NHL, with the support of the NHL Players Association, to empower Campbell to hand out supplementary discipline for players who checked their opponents using a headshot – effective immediately.
"Anything that we can do to make this game safer is a key thing," veteran Ducks forward Teemu Selanne told the Canadian Press at the time. "If you make big hits and you get a two-game suspension, I don't think anybody learns from that. If you give right away 10 games, then you set the example. It's going to cost you -- big time. I think you're going to think about it twice."
The NHL sent a DVD to all 30 teams with examples of the types of body checks that would no longer be permitted.
"We believe this is the right thing to do for the game and for the safety of our players," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "The elimination of these types of hits should significantly reduce the number of injuries, including concussions, without adversely affecting the level of physicality in the game."
"I am glad that Cooke's totally unnecessary, deliberate, blindside hit became the final catalyst for a change in the rules that was far too long in coming," TSN reporter John Lu says. "Think of how many careers could have been saved or extended if the league had taken a stand years ago."
While discipline is still at the league's discretion, there is now an official standard that exists for approaching these situations, a standard of what type of hits are acceptable and what type are not.
Unfortunately, all this comes too late for Savard and many players like him. The forward recently admitted his return to the Bruins' lineup for their playoff run had been a mistake; months later, Savard is still suffering from post-concussion syndrome and will miss the beginning of the new season.
"The best thing that may have come out of this hit is that the league has taken initial steps to try to eliminate some of these dangerous hits," says Ferraro.
As always, we want to get your take in our Your Call feature. Do you think Cooke should have been suspended? Do you agree with the NHL’s new headshot policy?