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NHL players, GMs weigh in on renewed head shot debate

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TSN.ca Staff
3/8/2010 9:48:24 PM
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On Sunday, Penguins forward Matt Cooke delivered a blindside hit on Bruins forward Marc Savard.

On Monday, the debate on head shots in the National Hockey League had been re-ignited and was the headlining topic at the league's general managers' meetings in Florida.

It's an age-old subject in the NHL but one that has once again been made the primary discussion point for the league's brass.

Savard, who lost consciousness and left the game on a stretcher before being taken to hospital, is just one of 40 players who have missed a total of 360 games this season due to head or concussion injuries.

The hit has generated a critical response from NHL players, but they say the league needs to make it clear what is allowed and what is not so there is not as much grey area regarding the legalities of certain checks.

"When you're talking about a guy hurting his head, this has come up how many times now?", said Penguins forward Sidney Crosby. "At some point there's going to have to be a clear-cut rule or a clear-cut direction because right now it seems like there's an in-between somewhere.

"You've got to hope the players will police it and do the right thing, but at the same time it's a fast game and there are hard hits," said Crosby. "So at some point there's got to be a clear indication for guys because we've seen this so many times now."

Senators forward Mike Fisher didn't hold back in his assessment of Cooke's check.

"I didn't think it was a clean hit, that's for sure," said Fisher. "He probably wasn't trying to hurt him but you've got to let up in those situations. It doesn't matter who you are or what type of game, you just can't hit guys like that."

Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf echoed the sentiment that, while it was not a clean hit, there seems to be a very fine line between what's legal and what's illegal, and it's not as though bodychecking is about to be taken out of the sport.

"It's clear that he went for his head. There's no room for that in the game," said Phaneuf. "But if a guy's coming through the middle of the ice and he's got his head down and you hit him with your shoulder, that's a clean hit. You can't take hitting out of the game of hockey. Contact's still a big part of this game. I think every guy in the league would say that."

Senators forward Jason Spezza said the biggest obstacle for the league's decision-makers would be figuring out how to get rid of head shots and blindside hits without minimizing the physical element of hockey.

"The biggest challenge for whoever is involved with everything is going to be what the rule is and what to make a fair rule that you don't take contact out of the game," said Spezza. "The physical nature of our game is one of the best things we have and you don't want to take that physical nature of the game but you also don't want to see guys getting hurt. That's kind of the fine line that has to be discussed and whoever has to determine that, it's going to be a tough job."

Some players say this could be the hit that finally makes changes happen.

"They've been talking about it for a while and that may very well be the last straw so, even though those are essentially clean hits, maybe a penalty has to be called for a head shot," said Maple Leafs forward John Mitchell.

NHL VP and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell summed up his dilemma quite concisely.

"We do penalize everything else; a punch, an elbow, a cross-check or a push from behind where he injures the player's head," said Campbell. "The question really is, 'Do you want to take shoulders to the head out of the game of hockey?'" (For more on that, check out Bob McKenzie's latest blog). David Booth was knocked unconscious by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers when Richards came in high with his shoulder. Booth had to go to hospital with a concussion, while Richards saw no supplementary discipline from the league.

General managers also took the time to weigh in on the discussion.

"What I thought was that (Savard) was in a position of vulnerability," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli from Florida. "Now that's not a criteria right now for supplemental discipline, but I think you have to look at repeat offending. These are things we talked about (Monday). We may lose a guy for the rest of the year, I don't know."

"I hope that we can do something to help fix part of the problem," said Jim Rutherford, president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. "But it's not really as cut-and-dry as a lot of people think."

Leafs GM Brian Burke said it could be time to change the thinking behind who is held responsible for contact made to the head, as the blame currently lies mostly with the recipient of the hit in a lot of cases. 

"We've always put the burden on the 'hittee' and now maybe we have to shift some of that burden when a player's in a vulnerable position," Burke said. "You can finish your check but you've got to do it low, you've got to avoid contact to the head and these are things we'll talk about (Tuesday)."

There's no doubt these hits are having a massive effect on the dynamic of the league. Big name players are sometimes sidelined for weeks at a time as the result of having their heads down for a split second, limiting their personal statistics, cancelling out their contributions to their team and reducing fan interest by taking a marquee name out of the lineup.

Back in October, Florida Panthers forward

"Going into the year, we have David pencilled in for what we thought would be about 35 goals," said Panthers GM Randy Sexton. "Currently he's got five, so no doubt an offensive impact on our team."
 
NHL legend Mark Messier said the game has changed since his 1980s and 90s heyday, and that the league must take measures to make clear the definitions of what is and isn't allowed.

"What we need to do, in my mind, is to define the rules of engagement," said Messier. "Because they're much different now than they were when I played. Things are much more under the microscope now, every hit, every play, everything is talked about for 24 hours every day of the week.

"Once we have defined rules on what exactly is legal and what isn't, the people that overstep those boundaries, we need to discipline much harsher than we have been," said Messier. "As we've seen we've had some devastating hits this year that have really hurt guys. We need to get rid of those."

Messier did add that some of the onus was on the players, who he said were putting themselves in vulnerable positions and not protecting themselves well enough.

The issue promises to be a challenging one for Campbell and the NHL's higher-ups, and perhaps with the GMs currently discussing it with some sense of urgency, progress could be made on this front in the relatively near future.

Savard lies on the ice (Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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