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NHL GMs opt to fiddle while players get burned by headshots

It's possible and, one would hope, perhaps probable that when they reconvene in March, NHL general managers will take concrete action on head shots, hits from behind, and other issues that could grow up to be true rules infractions.

They didn't do it this week in Toronto.

Most claimed, and perhaps rightly so, that the relative inaction was for all the right reasons. The issue needs more study (a special committee will undertake that task) and the league will provide more meaningful data once the spring meetings get underway. I happen to think there may well be some movement in that regard, but that's of little consequence to the players who will suffer from the delay.

Part of that falls on them. The players decapitated their own union and interests in this matter when player reps voted 25-5 to oust NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly in what appeared to be a power play by internal, non-player leadership.

In the history of the NHLPA, no Executive Director ever spoke publicly of protecting the players from themselves and their penchant for cheap hits and head-hunting until Kelly addressed the issue at last year's meeting with a proposed rule change. That, of course, went nowhere as it will be a cold day in the Phoenix Coyotes locker room before GMs or anyone at NHL headquarters takes their cue from an NHLPA official.

Still, the GMs could have made a decision at this meeting if they truly wanted. That door was opened by Colin Campbell, the league's Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, who stated just before the start that increased suspensions might be an adequate deterrent should the GMs wish to go in that direction.

"Maybe part of this is we should double (suspensions)," Campbell said. Then, looking around the room as the GMs began to assemble, he added: "But it's up to these guys."

There's irony in that statement, though it might not be bitter. Think of it more along the lines of irony laced with a stitch of cynicism. You see, Campbell has been there before.

Pretty much on his own, Campbell started clamping down on blows designed to incapacitate opponents. He threw off the cloak of "clean hit" that some players, coaches and GMs rally around and began handing out suspensions outside the norm of his more pugnacious predecessor Brian Burke and, quite frankly, the norm that he himself had embraced in the immediate years after he took the job.

Burke, a GM in Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup in 2007) and now Toronto since he left the league office, has long been an advocate of a physical style of hockey. It was reflected in his administrative rulings as well as in how he put his teams together. Campbell pretty much followed the established trend until a few seasons ago when the Philadelphia Flyers seemed intent on reincarnating themselves as the Broad Street Bullies. Seemingly without input from GMs and the higher-ups in NHL offices and, perhaps, because he had a son who had entered the league with the Florida Panthers, Campbell started sitting players like Steve Downie and JesseBoulerice for 20 or more games.

It didn't seem to have much of an effect, perhaps because his effort didn't last very long. As Campbell started raising the bar, it started coming down again. Word around the rinks was that the owners didn't like it, nor did some of the GMs who were trying to get more physical play into the game. Some argued that several influential GMs took exception to Campbell doing things his way, thereby circumventing their power -- power that had already suffered a dramatic decrease with the inception of the Competition Committee, a group that can approve rule changes and send them on to the Board of Governors.

That group has been reined in as well, given the current unrest between the league and the players association as well as the players and their ever-changing leadership. Nowadays it appears the GMs have clawed back some of their former powers as "stewards" of the game and the perception is that Campbell does their bidding and not the other way around. Hence, the "it's up to them" remark -- subtle but not easily dismissed if you play the Kremlin Watching game NHL-style.

Change may be coming regarding blows to the head, but there's no guarantee of how much or when. And until then, and maybe ever afterward if the GMs revert to form, the players are still at serious risk.

One need only look at the call (or lack of same) regarding Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross for his hit on Chris Drury last Saturday night, the same night the NHL GMs were assembled in Toronto for Hall of Fame festivities and their semiannual meeting, to get a sense of where this issue is and where it appears to be going.

Glencross, said to have been under pressure from the coaching staff to "contribute more" in the physical aspects of the game, left his wing just 48 seconds into the game and went across ice to blindside Drury with a shot to the head. Drury was without the puck and looking in a different direction. The Rangers captain, who has been concussed several times in his career, seemed to be knocked at least into semi -consciousness from the force of Glencross's hit and had to be helped off the ice.

Glencross got three games for what was ruled to be nothing on the ice. There was no penalty called for the hit, no call for the blatant interference and no call for the substantial run up to the hit, something that is generally deemed to be charging in the often-ignored rulebook.

It's possible the refs missed the play because it was well behind where the puck was, but three years ago Campbell likely would have made his supplemental discipline ruling a good deal more severe. Now, such a ruling apparently doesn't sit well with "them."

Not surprisingly, GMs dismissed the idea of removing the trapezoid behind the goal cage where goalies are not allowed to play the puck. There had been suggestions that players behind the net had become easy targets for onrushing forecheckers. The trapezoid has even led to an area around the net dubbed the "kill zone" by players who look to get in with a rush in order to take a shot at a puckhandler who might not be able to keep his head on a swivel.

That development should come as a disappointment to some, and I would join their ranks. I suggested at the start of the season that the league just flip the rule and let the goalie play the puck in that zone with a hands-off approach, but make him fair game for a hit outside of it. That would allow the goalie to perhaps protect a defenseman or other puckhandler from a hit he wouldn't ordinarily see coming while still allowing for an area on the ice that could, should the goalie venture out, create a forechecking opportunity for a turnover and offensive play.

Not all goalies would go out there knowing they are a target, but my rule idea would merely serve to cut down on the number of times one just throws the puck out of the zone and prompts someone to shoot it back in. That "pong" style of play is why the trapezoid was written into the rulebook in the first place, but the consequence has been more monster-like hits.

Don't look for a change to happen. It had virtually no support in the meeting.

Former New York Rangers (and, briefly) Islanders GM Neil Smith had an interesting take regarding the bone crushing hits that have sent so many players out of the lineup this season.

Smith told PrimeTime Sports with Bob McCown, a radio show in Toronto, that he could "guarantee" that if you watch a game in 1967 (the last year the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup), you wouldn't see one major hit along the boards, especially a hit that was designed to injure an opposing player.

Just days later, Campbell said he sat down and watched a game from the 1970s and noticed how much less physical play there was then as compared to now. It's interesting, because in the early to mid-70s, the Flyers were thought to have bullied their way to two Stanley Cups, and the perception of that era by fans and hockey insiders alike is that it was an exceptionally rugged period when anything was likely to happen regarding the physical side of the game, and usually did.

Campbell saw it differently. "The hitting today is so much more evident," he said.

There's an argument to be made that fans and GMs alike like all that hitting, but it's getting out of hand.

I received a slew of letters, by unofficial count the second most ever on a topic, when I wrote that Ontario Hockey League Commissioner David Branch was "courageous" for his decision to suspend a player for the remainder of the season for a hit behind the net that left an opponent concussed and with a fractured skull.

Surprisingly (and, I would add, that's a credit to the intelligence of the readers of SI.com), the majority agreed saying that someone needed to rise above the rhetoric and make decisions that just might have an impact on how the game is played at the junior level. Several disagreed, claiming that Branch had no right to come down so hard on what the dissenters said was a "clean" play and a "clean hit."

For the record, the play was not deemed to be clean in any fashion. The on-ice officials made both charging and boarding calls. While that doesn't necessarily command a season-long suspension, Branch made his ruling based on the consequences of the hit as well as the distance traveled and the player's seeming willingness to use the boards to intensify the damage caused by the force of his hit.

Using the boards in that way is boarding, and boarding is not a "clean" play. Coming at an opponent at full speed and from a considerable distance is charging, and that too is against the rules.

This might come as a revelation to the letter writer who claimed to be a college coach but passed on the responsibility that comes with signing his name or even identifying his school.

Too bad, it would appear there are a great many hockey fans out there who would certainly not want to send their son or daughter to his institution, a place where he claimed it was the victim of the hit who caused his own pain.

There must be a lot of charging and boarding being taught at that school -- little wonder the author chose not to identify himself.

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