Tuesday March 15th, 2011

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By Stu Hackel

Say this for the NHL: This league can, at times, respond to the problems it faces with some degree of swiftness and decisiveness. The image of the league -- which is well-earned and still deserved in some instances (like 15 years to rid the rinks of seamless glass)-- is one of an organization that changes at a glacial speed. But the GM's have met, discussed and deliberated some serious issues this week against the backdrop of a few truly harrowing incidents in the past few months. At times, those incidents made the game seem out of control, and the GMs recognized areas that needed to be fixed and have begun the process of fixing them.

They were able to do so because of some internal help -- the Hockey Operations Department seems again to have gathered relevant statistics, video and other evidence to crystallize the issues, and influential owners have gotten involved. There has also been some external help -- the scientific evidence of progressive brain disease in former enforcers, as well as reaction by fans, media and, for the first time, sponsors to some of the worst situations the NHL has witnessed in a while.

Some of the changes being proposed this week in Boca Raton have been in the works for quite a while. A few have been more immediate responses to newer events. But if the league was hoping to answer its critics and allay the fears of fans and sponsors, it did a good job. Now comes the hard part: getting all these good proposals and pronouncements to produce a safer game that continues to be entertaining (and TSN's Bob McKenzie, speaking on Wednesday's "Morning Show" over Montreal's Team 990 radio, adds that how these proposals will look as rules is still unknown; his very interesting take can be heard on this page).

Among the most heartening developments to come out of the meetings thus far is the GMs' directive to Hockey Ops to toughen supplementary discipline for illegal head hits. That means longer suspensions and even longer ones for repeat offenders. Two- and three-game bans have really served as little more than short vacations for players who cross the line. But if these suspensions were, say, to start at five games, they might serve as more of the necessary deterrent to get some dangerous play out of the game.

It's not all that easy, however, to just sit guys down or expect a meeting to solve the league's problem. Some additional education will be needed so that players understand what is permissible and what is not.

One of the better parts of Tuesday afternoon's NHL Network telecast covering the meetings was the final segment in which former Flames GM Craig Button and hockey writer E.J. Hradek discussed how important it will be to involve coaches in this education effort. They're the ones the players respond to, they create the roles and game plans and hand out the ice time. Hopefully, the GMs or the "Blue Ribbon" panel that Gary Bettman created on Monday will focus on that and make sure the coaches are part of the process. The coaches will appreciate it, especially because another part of Bettman's plan (which is actually Mario Lemieux's suggestion) is that the coaches may be fined along with players and teams for repeat offenses.

Another very positive development from the GMs is the recognition that the rules on hits to the head need to be expanded beyond the current ban on blindside and lateral shots that was introduced this season as the now-famous Rule 48. The GM's will look further into how that rule might be strengthened.

While there is, apparently, no collective desire among the GMs at the moment to pass a zero-tolerance rule on head hits -- although some do support it -- the group was able to settle on trying to find some additional specific instances of deliberate checks to the head that should be penalized.

"We're going to look to see if we can come up with a head hit rule in addition to Rule 48 that focuses on dangerous hits, hits when a player is vulnerable or engaged with another player and a third player comes in or or where there is excessive force," Bettman said. Many of these kinds of hits are currently legal, but have certainly been on the rise. The NHL Network aired some of them in this video below featuring interviews with various GMs:

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The hits that involve a third player coming in and clocking an opponent who is engaged in a puck battle are prominent in these clips. (Credit is due the Hockey Ops for recognizing and isolating these specific types of head hits to highlight for the GMs.)

A third positive step has to do with the proposed stronger rules on boarding and charging, a major focus of the Tuesday session. This year the league will set an all-time record for such calls, so the league recognized that something needed to be done. In the segment below from today's NHL Network show, NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson takes viewers through some of the video the GM's saw on boarding and charging...

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...and it's clear that the changes in the game brought about by the post-lockout rules have increased these incidents, some of which have resulted in concussions. Eliminating these types of hits to vulnerable players will require a great deal of education as well as tougher rules. One can expect there will be something of a learning curve when they are introduced, as there was with Rule 48.

In that video, by the way, Gregson explains the thought process that referees go through when making a call on a dangerous play.  Every fan should understand this to better appreciate how the refs do their jobs. First, did the player throwing the check have any regard for the puck? (If a defender is trying to play the puck, the blow usually isn't as devastating.) Was he trying to separate the player from the puck or was he just going to punish the puck carrier? "If any of those flags go up," Gregson said, "the you're probably going on the more severe side of a board major, game misconduct, that type of thing."

There are still aspects of the game that need attention, especially tweaking the playing rules to help eliminate situations that breed dangerous play. There was some talk about eliminating the trapezoid behind the net so that goalies can play the puck and help defenseman who are put in the vulnerable spots that lead to boarding and charging penalties. But the group decided to put all of that off for a year to see how these new proposals work.

Division remains among the GMs. Some want to go so far as to re-introduce some obstruction tactics and the two-line offside to slow the game and make the physical side of it less dangerous. Others want to continue the fast game and curtail overly physical play. It's an interesting philosophical discussion, but the lack of consensus is one factor that places a drag on changes the game needs.

But all in all, this was a day for positive change and the league deserves credit for that.

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