By Stu Hackel
The NHLPA staged a golf outing this week not far from Toronto and the most prominent tidbits to emerge in the media were from the impromptu remarks that Executive Director Donald Fehr made forecasting the future of labor relations. Last week, we noted that the mini-orgy of front-loaded, long-term contracts that teams have recently doled out could well prompt some owners to press for changes during the next CBA negotiations. Given the fact that teams can't seem to control themselves when it comes to spending, these proposals could be more exacting than the current system that the league achieved by locking out the players for the 2004-05 season, and we wondered if more labor unrest was on the horizon.
Fehr's remarks were meant to be reassuring (TSN video and a complete transcript from Sean Fitz-Gerald in The National Post). He downplayed the potential for a clash with team owners over the deals in question or that the cap floor is too high and forces low revenue teams to spend beyond their means. And he added, "The hockey players and the fans suffered through that seven years ago, and the owners achieved what they wanted to achieve. So, hopefully, that’s behind us.”
Hopefully, he's right. It's hard to know what the owners might propose and how it will be received, but at this point, the players and their new leader don't seem to be expecting the worst. Asked if hockey fans should be nervous, Fehr replied, “I hope not. If there’s a reason to be nervous, they’ll know soon enough. I wouldn’t be nervous before there’s a reason to be.”
We'll take his advice for the time being and move on to the product on the ice. Another interview from that golf tournament caught our attention, one that TSN's Michael Landsberg conducted with the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri (video), who sits on the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee. The conversation turned to hits to the head, which has been a big focus of the committee's attention during the last year. Landsberg didn't ask Cammalleri about the PA's stance on this, but rather his personal views, and the Habs winger didn't mince words.
Asked by Landsberg how far he is willing to go on the subject of intentional head contact rules to make the game safer, Cammalleri stated, “Pretty far. I think when it comes to a toughness needed to play the game, that’s important, and I think you find that in a lot of different ways. Let’s play as tough a brand as you want. If it’s going to take a broken limb here and there, I’m OK with that. I know that might sound a little harsh. But when it comes to the brain, I think we can’t be ignorant and we have to be very aware of what’s taking place with brain injuries so I’d like to see them clean that up.”
He continued, “I think there’s a certain vulnerability now because of the speed of the game to the player who still has an awareness that didn’t take place in years before.”
Landsberg asked, “Is there any excuse to hit a guy in the head?”
“It can happen just because, once again, the speed is so fast and there’s going to be some inherent risk,” Cammalleri replied, “but I think that the responsibility on the hitter should be much more and that there is a way to do it without hitting the head.”
That got us thinking about the proposed changes to Rule 48 by the NHL GMs that were sent to the Competition Committee, which then approved and passed them on to the NHL Board of Governors last month. They were subsequently adopted for next season. We wrote about the potential changes after the GMs meeting in Boston prior to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final and expressed some concern about what we saw as potential shortcomings and vagueness in how the rule might be worded and called. Now that it has been adopted, the new version of Rule 48 deserves a fuller examination and assessment.
First, the NHL Rule Book online has not yet been updated to reflect the changes (here's the current link to last season's Rule 48) and no language for the new 48 has yet been circulated to the public. However we know that:
1) It removes the concept that the only illegal hits to the head are ones delivered from the blind side or laterally. Those words will be dropped. We also know that it will be applied all over the ice, not just in certain areas (there will be no "hitting zone" behind the net) where headshots will be permitted, something that surprised observers last season and was not a written part of the rule, but it was the way that referees were instructed to call it. Now any hit that targets the head or in which the head is the principle point of contact is subject to a penalty.
2) A minor penalty has been added to the rule, which gives the referee more latitude in making the call. And, something that doesn't seem to have been widely reported, the major penalty for a violation of this rule will be replaced by a match penalty, which -- in theory -- operates the same way: A five-minute major and removal from the game. The hit will be judged a deliberate attempt to injure and, because it is a match penalty, the player will be automatically suspended until his case is reviewed by the league for supplementary discipline.
These changes mean that the on-ice officials now have options when penalizing contact to the head, depending on how they view the severity of the infraction and the intentions of the checker. So, for example, when you view the hit that Boston's Dan Paille delivered to Dallas's Raymond Sawada last season...
...you see a deliberate hunting down of a target with the intent to hit him in the head, a complete disregard for the other player. That would earn a match penalty next season (and Paille was, in fact, suspended for that hit).
...in which Boyle clocked him from behind with a shoulder to the head was, as the league sees it, not delivered with the same intent as the Paille's hit on a puck-carrier. In this case, the puck arrived at Spacek around the same time as the forechecking Boyle, who rammed him to take possession. That blow would fall more under the minor penalty category. (Boyle was not penalized for that hit nor was he suspended or fined, which was probably justified considering the nature of what the NHL considered blindside hits).
Now, this distinction could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are differences in the intent and severity of various checks to the head, and the minor-match penalty gradation takes that into account. Now penalizing a player for something that was previously not an infraction should influence behavior, as Rule 48 already has. On the other hand, however, this new version of the rule has the potential to be controversial, and concerns may arise that referees will opt for the more lenient minor when the severe match penalty is called for. We don't see many match penalties called in the NHL. We'll just have to see how this is called next season to determine if those concerns are justified.
3) Referees will still have the option not calling a penalty if they believe the contact with the head was accidental, if the speed of the game made the hit unavoidable, and/or if the player who was hit put himself in a vulnerable position. This may be an area that Cammalleri and others who want the onus more squarely on the hitter will find troubling. The most well-known example of accidental contact due to the increased speed of the game is likely the David Steckel hit on Sidney Crosby last January...
...that helped put the Penguins' captain out for the rest of the season. The division of opinion is as well-known as the hit, but if the referees and Hockey Operations rule, as they did in this case, that the contact was accidental, there will be no penalty and no supplementary discipline.
The best example of a player who put himself in a vulnerable position -- and this, too, was hugely contentious -- may be Markus Naslund of the Canucks when Colorado's Steve Moore delivered the-now infamous hit that led to Todd Bertuzzi's retaliatory attack in 2004. Here's that original hit (and the best view is around 25 seconds in):
No penalty was called on the play as Naslund was judged to have put himself in a position to be hit by Moore. Remember, this is pre-lockout, pre-concussion epidemic stuff, and even pre-Moore-Bertuzzi, so a lot has changed since then. It's possible that Moore would now be penalized by a more vigilant officiating staff for not bothering to play the puck and going after Naslund while targeting his head. It still happens pretty fast, however, and the speed of the game is going to be a factor in the referees' thinking on these sorts of plays. But, in any case, this shows how a player can put himself in that position and the rule will allow for that kind of hit.
It shows a vulnerable player leaning forward to get the puck and taking a shoulder to the head. This is the kind of incident that the refs will have a judgment call to make: Did Weight have a chance to pull out of that hit, as some alleged? If so, the refs could penalize him for targeting Sutter's head. And then a discussion would ensue about whether it would be worth a minor or a match.
And, there's those times when a player skates through the neutral zone with his head down, making himself vulnerable, and he gets deliberately slammed in the head by a checker who could have instead gone for his chest or shoulder. When Cammalleri talks about "the responsibility on the hitter should be much more and that there is a way to do it without hitting the head," that's one of those instances. One supposes the refs can call that play a legal hit.
4) There is a commitment by the NHL that those who are assessed a match penalty (and perhaps some who get minors only to have Hockey Operations deem them worthy of more severe punishment) will be dealt with more harshly when it comes to supplementary discipline. If the nature of the blow to the head is egregious, what was a two-game ban last season could become six or eight or 10 going forward as the NHL makes a more concerted effort to rid the game of these hits. And repeat offenders may really get hammered. As with other aspects of this new era in Hockey Operations, we'll have to wait and see how it works, but the sentiment and intention are laudable.
For a league with a reputation of not moving quickly, or quickly enough, in the face of trouble, it's instructive to think about how far the NHL has come in a relatively short time. In February 2007, for example, Chris Drury of the Sabres was blindsided by the Senators' Chris Neil...
...the sentiment changed entirely among the GMs and, after years of discussion on concussions and headshots, they voted to approve the first version of Rule 48, which went into effect last season. It was a half-step, but it was movement for the first time nevertheless. Now, 20 months after that first recognition by the GMs, they've certainly strengthened the rule. There are some lingering questions about how it may work, but after one year of the original Rule 48, to see the flaws and move to correct them shows how things have indeed changed.
For those in the hockey community -- and the medical community -- who have sought a tougher ban on hits to the head from the NHL, it must seem as if the league is operating according to the logic described by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who told of Zeno's Paradox -- an arrow when shot goes halfway to its target, then halfway the rest of the distance, then halfway the rest of the distance and never actually gets to where it is going.
Still, whatever logic is in place here has pointed the game in a new direction and, in a time when player safety is a rising concern, it is having an impact. The trick for the NHL remains balancing safety with our quaint, romantic notions of old time hockey.