By Stu Hackel
The NHL's first preseason games will be played next Monday, just a few days after training camps open, and because preseason play tends to feature some aggression as hopefuls try to catch their coaches' eyes, we may begin to quickly see the effects of the strengthened Rule 48. That's the rule that last season prohibited blindside and lateral hits to the head and now applies to most -- but not all -- other hits that intentionally target the noggin.
Judging by some recent comments from NHL players, these rules and their enforcement will continue to be a hot topic, and sentiment is growing to make them stronger and more consistent.
This most recent flurry of remarks began on Sept. 1. when Steven Stamkos told Damian Cristodero of The St. Petersburg Times that he agreed with the new rule, but also called it "a start. Now, it has to fall upon us as players to be accountable. That’s not going to change. You have to be aware on the ice. ... We’ve tried changing the rules and it's still happening, so guys have to be more responsible."
Rule 48 itself was used somewhat sparingly last season, in part because of its limitations. And referees invoked different rules on some of the more infamous hits in which concussions resulted, like Aaron Rome's interference major for his late shot on Nathan Horton in the Stanley Cup Final and Zdeno Chara's boarding major on Max Paciorrety last March in Montreal. But the new, improved 48 -- which will also include options for referees to call a minor and a match penalty -- could get more of a workout this season.
The NHL has also pledged a tougher standard of supplementary discipline than in the past, when an offending player could get nothing or perhaps only a couple of games for a dangerous play that caused a concussion. Chara controversially escaped any suspension while Rome got four games, rather long by comparison and an unprecedented suspension in the history of the Stanley Cup Final.
Still, there are elements in the rules that are going to cause uncertainty. One of them will be hits on players who have put themselves in a vulnerable position, such as skating with their heads down. Those hits to the head are still permitted and will likely be an area of great concern as this second version of Rule 48 gets tested for its effectiveness in curbing concussions.
The Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri, who sits on the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee, had some thoughts on that Wednesday when he spoke to Tony Marinaro of Montreal Radio's Team 990 (audio). "It used to be if you were a smart hockey player, you played with your head up and you didn't get hit in vulnerable situations," he said. "Well...Sidney Crosby is arguably the smartest hockey player in the world, plays the game with his head up more than anybody, and he's susceptible to it. So it tells you that now it's changed. It's not just one guy with his head down coming over the middle that's susceptible to that hit. The speed of the game is such that everybody is susceptible to that type of hit. So we have to clean it up."
Another gray area in the discussion is accidental head contact. Crosby's concussion issues began with what was considered an accidental collision with David Steckel in the Winter Classic game last January. Crosby has on a few occasions said he believes even accidental head contact should be penalized, the "zero tolerance" stance that is the rule in international hockey, U.S. colleges, USA Hockey's and Hockey Canada's minor programs, and the Canadian Major Junior OHL.
Crosby seemed to renew that call last week in Pittsburgh when he spoke about headshots following a medical update on his condition. “As a league, as a union, I think we’ve all educated ourselves a lot in the last six or seven months. I think it can go further. At the end of the day, I don't think there's a reason not to take them out," Crosby told reporters. "The odd time maybe there's accidental contact, but for the most part we can control what goes on out there. For sure, it's a fast game, but guys have to be responsible. A guy's got to be responsible for his stick. Why shouldn't he be responsible for the rest of his body when he's going to his somebody?"
Cammalleri said Wednesday (quoted by Bill Beacon of Canadian Press) that the stands taken by young stars like Crosby and Stamkos are changing the way the players as a group are reacting to head shots. "What the immediate effect is for me is that it allows other players now to come out and say, 'OK, it's not uncool to say what I really believe, and that I'm not a soft player because I don't think we should have headshots. I'm not a player a general manager won't want on his team. I'm now going to voice that opinion.'
"I think it's very good of Sid to be able to do that. He's under a big microscope, the biggest in our game, and I commend him for doing that. I think that it's important that we don't be ignorant to what's going on in our game."
The Rangers' Marian Gaborik voiced his agreement with Crosby, at least regarding the intentional aspects of head shots, telling Tim Bontemps of The New York Post, "Headshots are dangerous, and he's right. That's how it should be. Guys should be playing a game that's fun for us to play and fun for the fans, and purposely going after guys with elbows or blindside hits should be out."
And Gaborik's new teammate, Brad Richards, joined the chorus in an interview with Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times saying if a ban on all head contact is what it would take to remove them from the game, players would quickly adapt. "I’d rather do that than have more people suffering on the sideline,” he said.
“Every locker room now is talking about head shots and concussions,” Richards added. But for a total ban on head contact to be truly effective, he contends, all the players would have to buy in, not just those who currently show restraint when checking so they'll avoid head contact. Richard estimates half the players now do that, but half must be more aggressive because that's what coaches demand of them. So coaches too would have to be part of the effort.
“Players still, to be honest, do stupid things,” he told Klein. “We don’t realize what we’re doing to each other sometimes. It still comes down to having respect for each other on the ice. It’s the stuff that’s unsuspecting or where people aren’t looking — that’s the stuff that just has to stop.”
In his Sept. 1 comments, Stamkos indicated that while accidental head contact was going to happen, more needed to be done in situations where contact was deliberate. "At the end of the day I'm not saying every one of those hits that resulted in a concussions was avoidable. It's going to happen. It’s a contact sport, it's so fast you’re going to get them. But in order to minimize them I think as a player you have to be aware of the situation on the ice. We’re trying with the headshot rule. I don’t know what other rules you can put in to prevent it. Guys have to be responsible....
"You look at some of the headshots, guys are blatantly putting their elbows up. A guy’s back is turned and you hit him into the boards. That comes down to common sense. We all know how to deliver a clean body check. You have to be accountable for your actions on the ice. With some of the suspensions getting a little steeper, guys are going to realize that if they do that, they’re not going to get away with it."
Stamkos' teammate Pavel Kubina opts for leniency for those who accidentally make head contact. He told Cristodero in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times, "Accidents are going to happen," and Cristodero noted that Kubina was suspended three games last season for what he said was an accidental elbow that concussed Chicago's Dave Bolland.
But Kubina himself caught a Jason Chimera elbow in the head during Game 1 of the Lightning's playoff series against Washington and Chimera escaped punishment. Kubina was concussed and gone for the playoffs, and he wants consistency when it comes to punishing offenders. "If you do it on purpose, it has to be the same for everybody," he said. "Sometimes you don't get anything, and sometimes there's a couple of games.
"It should be one rule," Kubina said. "If you hit somebody in the head, it doesn't matter if that person is injured or not. It has to be the same for everybody."
That echoed Stamkos's words from earlier this month when he said, "I just don’t think it should matter whether a guy gets hurt or not. If it’s a shot to the head, it shouldn’t depend on if a guy is out with a concussion and misses a year or if he’s out for that shift. It should be standard. You get hit in the head, it's a head shot and you have to deal with it."
That's contrary to how NHL Hockey Operations has dealt with the issue in the past. A lack of clarity caused widespread outcry when Chara avoided additional games lost for what the NHL considered "a hockey play." Long before that, the league's case-by-case approach to discipline -- which was often criticized for being random, and generally soft -- was parodied by bloggers who created The NHL Wheel of Justice (which got new life in an interactive version created last March by Vancouver software developer Pinder Johal).
Along with a stronger Rule 48, a new day of NHL supplementary discipline could be upon us with the appointment of Brendan Shanahan to head up that area. At least that is what the league has led us to believe.