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Capitals feel pain of headshots issue, more notes

This probably isn't the best day to be David Koci of the Colorado Avalanche and under observation by the NHL's Hockey Operations Department.

Just prior to the Board of Governors getting an in-depth presentation from Hockey Ops VP Colin Campbell and staff on hits to the head and along the boards, Koci attempted to inflict the kind of blow that exists for one reason and one reason only: to take a player out of the game.

"Please, the guy has one goal in six years," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, a longtime veteran of the American Hockey League coaching ranks, said to reporters after the game in which Koci decimated Washington's Mike Green. "He couldn't play in the American League. I've faced David Koci a lot. He might be a nice guy -- I have no idea. I'm glad he's making a living. Let's be honest. If this was any [other] game, he gets on the ice in the first three minutes, gets into his fight and then he sits at the end of the bench, so what good is he?

"I mean, [for] 15 feet he saw Green's No. 52 and it didn't stop him one iota from hitting him in the back and going for his head. I hope they throw the book at him. It was a bush-league hit."

It was indeed, and Boudreau wasn't wrong calling Koci "an idiot" and likening his hit to one I happened to mention in a column two weeks ago where an Ontario Hockey League player was seriously injured and the perpetrator was banished from the league for life. (He's since joined up with another team in another league.) And if you think I'm going to accuse Boudreau of being a hypocrite for defending a similar hit that his star forward Alex Ovechkin put on Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta, well that's ridiculously ridiculous. This is, after all, the NHL and this stuff goes on all the time.

But here's the rub, and it's being brought home to Caps fans and a whole lot of people who think the game is about more than just kill shots: Mike Green is a fine hockey player, the kind people come to see and owners need to have on the ice.

These kinds of devastating hits have to stop.

Koci may be a nice guy, but you can tell by his size, skills and penalty-minutes that his role is merely one of attrition, a leftover from the school that still gives voice to the argument that punishing hits designed to take a player out of the game are a part of how hockey should be played.

It may well be that the NHL Board of Governors is beginning to think otherwise. There was no resolution after two days of meetings in Pebble Beach this week, but if you read between the lines uttered by those who were in the room or nearby, there's something of a consensus that if the GMs bring forth a rule change, the Govs may well accept it.

"It's a high-priority item in those meetings and the league has done a lot of research on it," said San Jose's Doug Wilson, one of the more level-headed former players-turned-general manager. "There have been committees put in place to acquire information. When we get the data, we can at least put rules in place based on not assuming things. I think you'll see something coming out of the (GM) meetings in Florida. There has been enough discussion by a lot of people. These discussions have been going on for a couple of years. We're wise not to have a knee-jerk reaction. The reality we're dealing with now is that the game is played at a different speed, a different pace.

"It's much faster than when I played."

That's a big part of what's on the table. Rule changes have opened up the ice quite a bit, and one of the largely unforeseen results is that players can build up a tremendous amount of speed before delivering a hit. There's also still a concern regarding the boards and the glass and how they might contribute to head injuries, but the bigger issues are the size and speed of the players.

There's also the issue of what exactly constitutes a player "finishing his check." In essence, that's what Koci did in finishing off Green. He was to his own self being true and he came in unchecked from a great distance and at a high rate of speed. He hit Green mostly from behind and after Green had released the puck. Green survived, but other players haven't.

"To hit a player who can't anticipate or avoid (the hit), it's not a safe hit," said Toronto Maple Leafs President and GM Brian Burke, another influential person at the Govs meeting. "I think we have to take it out. To me, there has to be a shift where, when a player gets in that position to hit a player and that player is vulnerable and unsuspecting -- it's like the stop sign on the back of the jerseys with youth hockey in Canada -- at that point you have to pull up. Or hit him, but don't get him in the head."

Burke made a similar case weeks ago, reacting to a hit from the side by Mike Richards of the Flyers on David Booth of the Panthers, a so-called "clean hit" that left Booth with a concussion from which he has barely started to recover. Booth, like Green, never saw his opponent coming.

"The hit on Booth, the player that drilled him could have still drilled him but he didn't have to get him in the head," Burke said.

We have heard this kind of talk before. We've heard the Capitals front office defend Alexander Ovechkin to the nth degree for his hits while recoiling in horror when one of their own is victimized. But for Burke and a few others who are starting to see the light, this is progress. In Burke's case, it's a major step away from his previous approach -- including his eloquent defense of Todd Bertuzzi over the years. To see Wilson take a stand, well, his thoughts are always well-respected among players and managers, and now, perhaps, owners.

That said, the road to correction has not been traveled. Despite what the GMs say, the owners have, in the face of previous hits, tended to leave this matter at the side when it comes time to act. There's also the Players Association to deal with. A rule change of this magnitude has to go through the Competition Committee before it gets to the owners, and there's a school of thought that says the PA, with strong representation on the committee, will want something with real weight to it -- perhaps more than the owners or even the GMs might be comfortable with.

Having a few owners come to a microphone or notepad and advocate a strong stance would surely help the process along, but that rarely happens as they most often choose to have Commissioner Gary Bettman speak for them. But at least, at this point, the owners are listening. That in itself is a small step forward, a big problem for Koci, and something that Boudreau might want to consider while attempting to stand on both sides of one issue.

That said; the carnage goes on. Wednesday evening in Ottawa, Senators forward Jarkko Ruutu took out Kaleta with a shoulder hit to the head that Kaleta never saw coming. Ruutu, who last season was accused of biting a player on the thumb, got a five minute major but remained in the game. Kaleta was not as fortunate.

Phoenix's Ed Jovanovski, like Ruttu no stranger to the suspension game, recently got just two games for taking out Minnesota's Andrew Ebbett, who went on the injured reserve list with a concussion. Jovanovski, who also has a hit to Marian Gaborik's head on his rap sheet, is back playing for the Yotes.

Since the GM's meeting in Toronto in November, the hits have kept on coming; almost as hard and fast as the talk regarding doing something about them.

One might argue the NHL is pondering too much of a good thing, but Bettman gave some legs to the idea of having two outdoor games next season, with one in Canada. These games always run the risk of being a novelty that loses legs (or viewers) rather quickly if they become too commonplace, but that doesn't seem to be the case with the upcoming Winter Classic scheduled for Fenway Park in Boston on New Year's Day. Hence, having one in Canada is an idea whose time has come once again.

People tend to forget that Kevin Lowe and the Oilers staged an outdoor game at Edmonton's Commonweath Stadium in 2003. That event featured a match with the Montreal Canadiens and was preceded by an old timer's game in which Wayne Gretzky made an appearance. The success there sold the NHL on the idea and created the format that worked so well in Buffalo and Chicago in recent years.

Picking the right Canadian city will not be an easy task, and it's not a given that both games would be played on the same day. (There is talk of having the Canadian game take place on HockeyDay in Canada, which the country sets aside to celebrate all things hockey.) But the idea seemed to gain traction with the Governors and could well come to pass next season.

It all sounds good, what with Ice Edge Holdings having a window of opportunity to complete its bid to buy the Coyotes from the NHL and continue to operate the franchise in Phoenix, but it's not as rosy as you might think. For one, the group wants to play five games in Saskatoon, something the NHL hasn't signed off on. The idea would have to go through the Competition Committee and the NHLPA. You can be assured there will be objections.

Yet, with no other buyer in line (just people with "expressions of interest," according to Bettman), the league runs the risk of losing the sale and having to take the team back if the Saskatoon games become a deal-breaker.

The offsite games are a huge issue. If the league grants license to Ice Edge Holdings, what's to keep other franchises with home-date problems from wanting to line up other markets? That would leave the NHL looking like the Harlem Globetrotters in terms of home-ice stability, something that can't be good for hockey in Canada or the United States.

Bettman has also proposed giving the new owners full revenue sharing, which the franchise doesn't qualify for and the owners are likely loathe to want to do. But again, this deal needs to get closed if the NHL wants the Coyotes' debt off its hands.

All this and the league hasn't even begun due diligence on the potential new owners, a process the NHL has had trouble with in the past.

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