Friday June 10th, 2011

Under the proposed "new and improved" version of Rule 48, targeted hits to the head will be legal as long as the player who receives the blow isn't considered to be "defenseless." (Elise Amendola/AP Photos)

By Stu Hackel

On Monday, the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee will consider a decision by the NHL's general managers to expand Rule 48 on blindside and lateral hits to the head. While the league inches its way toward a new rule, it's uncertain at the moment exactly how that rule is going to be different and if it will be any more clear than the murky inaugural version that was on the books for 2010-11.

The GMs said this week that they would like to expand the original Rule 48, which outlawed some, but not every, blindside and lateral hit to the head. The rule (linked here) was not only the most-discussed and contentious in the NHL, it was one of the most misunderstood by players, fans and media. That's because it was designed to walk a tightrope of simultaneously addressing the rise in concussions while not inhibiting certain hits to the head that, despite their potentially dangerous consequences, the majority of GMs said they still wanted in the game.

There's little doubt that the league's ongoing concussion problem was not dramatically curbed by Rule 48, and all season there was increasing pressure from critics in the game, former players and referees, the medical community, and the media (most recently, Roy McGregor of The Globe and Mail, who wrote a scathing piece on it this week).

While the NHL trumpeted Rule 48 at the outset, its limitations soon became apparent. Hits that targeted the head but were deemed "north-south" were found to be legal, as were blindside and lateral blows delivered in what was termed the "hitting zone" behind the net.

The proposed new rule, according to the few GMs who made themselves available after last Wednesday's meeting, will remove the "blindside and lateral" provisions, and that will negate some of the problem.

But it appears that the proposed new Rule 48 the GMs bring to the Competition Committee on Monday will have some very exotic distinctions that will once again make it a complicated version for the hockey community to understand. “In general terms what the group decided was to expand on illegal hits to the head,” said Brendan Shanahan, the NHL vice president who will become the league’s chief disciplinarian starting next season.

Shanahan declined to give details. “I don’t think it’s appropriate until we get in front of the other people, mainly the NHLPA, and make sure they’re comfortable with it," he said. But he did allow for some area in which certain hits to the head will be permitted.

“There’s a subtle distinction between a ‘vulnerable’ player and a ‘defenseless’ player,” Shanahan said, explaining to a certain extent the thrust of the recommended rule tweak. A vulnerable player leaves himself open to a check by not looking in front of him when he has the puck or has just released it, Shanahan explained. A defenseless player is one in a position where he “shouldn’t expect to be hit.”

This is somewhat at odds with the way the proposal was explained over the CBC by Red Wings GM Ken Holland and Shanahan's NHL colleague Rob Blake, who is part of the NHL's "blue ribbon panel" on player safety with Shanahan, Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. Here's that video:

It's clear that these gents are talking about all targeting of the head by opposing checkers or when the head is the principal point of contact. There's no discussion here about distinctions between "vulnerable" and "defenseless."

Clearly, there is still sentiment among the GMs to keep some hits to the head in the game, and if Shanahan's distinction means anything, it means that targeted shots to "vulnerable" but not "defenseless" players will be permitted. How that one gets sorted out and explained to everyone should be mildly interesting, to say the least.

The NHL has always claimed that it does not want to move to the sort of zero tolerance head contact policy that exists in most leagues around the world with the exception of the professional game in North America, a policy that penalizes accidental head contact as well as purposeful. But proposing to allow targeted hits to the heads of vulnerable players seems as if the league is stopping well short of where it could go in the matter. There is apparently still sufficient  sentiment among GMs that anything more than what they are proposing will curb the physical nature of the sport at the NHL level.

“We want hitting in the game,” said the Senators' Bryan Murray after the GMs met. “There will be contact to the head. Whether we like it or not, it will not be illegal all the time.”

“The tightrope we walk is this is a full-contact sport -- it always has been,” said Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “We don’t want to change that. We want to eliminate the really dangerous parts of the game. But you’re going to get hit and there are going to be injuries.”

The next chapter in this ongoing saga will be written on Monday at the Competition Committee.

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