NHL players are bigger and faster than ever and so are the collisions on the ice. That reality has resulted in a rise in dangerous on-ice incidents, including the near- decapitation of Florida's David Booth by Philadelphia's Mike Richards in October and Pittsburgh winger Matt Cooke's recent head shot on the Boston centre Marc Savard. It was the latter that pushed the issue back into the spotlight just as the league's 30 general managers were gathering for semi-annual meetings this month.
Concussions and head injuries have increased over the last 15 or 20 years - coinciding with more diligent documentation over that time - and the increasing number of high-profile incidents has kept the head shot debate bubbling near the surface. NHL teams have watched helplessly as a player has gone down after being on the receiving end of a questionable hit. In many cases, in fact, there wasn't anything questionable about the hit at all - it was a cheap shot, and the punishment, at least until recent seasons, rarely matched the severity of the crime.
So what if a fourth-line journeyman received a three-game ban if a divisional opponent lost their star centre to a concussion for a month or six? The NHL, not exactly a bastion of progressive thinking, has been slow to address the issue. The league generally threw it back at the players, saying it was a "respect" issue and that it was up to the players' union to come up with a solution. And while the players may have wanted some preventive measures put into place, the majority willpower was not there and the matter just went away - until the next high-profile head shot came along, and then the experts came out of the woodwork with suggestions and solutions.
This time, though, the NHL GMs have stepped up and offered a framework for a rule that is designed to drastically cut down on the number of head shots. For clarification, a "head shot" generally refers to a shoulder check or forearm shot to an opponent's head. As it stands, there is nothing in the rule book that penalises a player's shoulder or upper arm coming into contact with an opponent's cranium while delivering a bodycheck (ask any forward who tried to skate around the old New Jersey defenceman Scott Stevens).
And as NHL players have increased in speed and size - and equipment increasingly resembles body armour, with hard-capped shoulder and elbow pads - a defenceman going back to play the puck or a forward who admires a pass for a split-second too long has become a target for concussion-inducing bodychecks or head shots and ended up missing significant amounts of time. So, the NHL GMs finally took a small step forward last week and offered up the following outline for a rule that would penalise shots to the head.
"A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or is the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline," says the new idea. Ironically, Colin Campbell, the NHL vice-president of discipline, said while Cooke's hit on Savard would be an offence that merited suspension if the rule was in place, the league decided not to suspend Cooke, a multiple offender with a reputation of playing on the edge, since the hit was currently a legal one.
But finally, the NHL are addressing the issue. There is still fine-tuning to be done and sub-committees to overcome, but it is a long-overdue step in the right direction. email@example.com