I don't say that lightly. I harbor the hope that the rule proposed this week by the 30 general managers can put the brakes on out of control head-hunting. I commend the GMs for doing something, but as with Toyota's recalls and failure to reliably fix dangerous problems in what was a high-quality product, I lack confidence that the NHL got it right.
And I believe history is on my side.
Having wrestled with the issue of vicious hits to the head for years and gone on record last November with their willingness to consider doing something about them, the GMs on Wednesday proposed the following:
"A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."
There were advocates -- most in the media, but some in the league -- of a hard and fast rule that declares hits to the head, in any form, a clear intent to injure and sits offenders for the rest of the match, making them subject to suspension for a fixed number or sliding scale of games. The GMs, however, went their more traditional route. It's fair and accurate to say it's a step in the right direction. But given the way the NHL has approached these types of rules in the past, the problem seems to be in the wording and the league's long history of enforcement, or lack thereof.
Let's start with: a violation of the above will result in a minor penalty or a major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline.
How's that for forcing a game official to make a snap judgment under pressure? According to the above, an on-ice referee has to see the infraction and determine if it was lateral, back pressure or a blindside hit, then figure out if it warrants two minutes (the recipient gets up on his own in a reasonable amount of time) or five (the victim departs on a stretcher).
It won't be easy. Experience shows that the majority of these hits take place after a play has moved on (as when the target of the hit has already released the puck). The rule makes no accommodation for video replay, so there's a very good chance that a decent number of hits, especially behind the play, will be missed. The referee will also have to put his hand up for a call the moment the infraction takes place. He's then charged with making an almost immediate decision about the severity of the hit. Isn't that how referee Stephane Auger got into a fair bit of trouble with Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows?
It's the old who's-zooming-whom question.
Then we move to "possible supplementary discipline." No doubt, Executive Vice President'Director of Hockey Operations/Prefect of Discipline Colin Campbell was just thrilled to have this one thrown in his lap. There has been an unofficial policy in the NHL for years that when all else fails, "let Colie do it." I subscribe to the oft-stated theorem that Campbell has the toughest job in sports, but that's only because he's called upon to enforce rules that the NHL has etched in Silly Putty.
Consider just some of the following:
Campbell passed on handing out any supplemental discipline regarding Matt Cooke's blow to the head of Marc Savard while GMs were reviewing an exhaustive presentation from the hockey ops department, presumably because blows to the head are not illegal in the NHL. It was a convenient ruling except for the fact that Campbell could have easily cited Cooke for "intent to injure" (there was) -- which is in the rule book and the basis of Boston GM Peter Chiarelli's argument that the Penguins forward, who took out Boston's best playmaker while the Bruins were battling for a playoff spot, is a repeat offender. (He is.) Chiarelli insisted that the blow was pretty much the same as the ones that got Cooke suspended for hits to the heads of then-Carolina forward Scott Walker and Rangers center Artem Anisimov.
Chiarelli's argument went for naught partly because it's pretty hard to budge Campbell when he's previously ruled that Mike Richards' hit on David Booth didn't warrant a penalty even though it caused the Panthers left wing to miss 45 games and his team to very likely to lose a playoff berth that Richards' Flyers are in position to secure.
"No one likes when a player like Mark Savard goes down the way he did," Campbell said while explaining his non-ruling. "No one likes when a player like David Booth goes down the way he did. But we have to be consistent. I know Matt Cooke is a repeat offender; he's been suspended twice in the last year. I can't suspend Matt Cooke for being a repeat offender. I have to find a reason. Right now, our rules say that shoulders to the head are legal. Matt Cooke did not jump, and did not do anything that we found illegal in his actions even though, again, you don't like what happened."
But that's the way it always works in the NHL. Several years ago, Campbell was doling out 15-, 20- and 25-game suspensions for similar actions, including some to the Flyers. That lasted about as long as it took Savard to recover from an earlier concussion. Quite often, a repeat offender figured in Campbell's rulings, just as being a first-time offender often got a player off the suspension hook.
Not to pick solely on Campbell. You can go back decades and find spots where situational rulings came back to bite the NHL on its corporate backside. If you want a recent example, look at the game between the Flyers and Panthers, in which Booth returned to Florida's lineup and met Richards head-on with a "manhood restated" fight. The league last year, at the request of tGMs, put in a rule that banned staged bouts. Yet, there were two fights, one just three seconds after the opening faceoff, and another a mere five seconds after the start of the first period. The much ballyhooed rule states that a so-called "staged fight" will result in 10-minute misconducts and five-minute majors. Both fights were staged, yet the rule was totally ignored.
Try tracking that rhyme or reason.
Then there was the standout "see no evil" ruling during last spring's Stanley Cup Final. Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, the player who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, started a fight with 19 seconds left in Game 2. It wasn't a "heat of the moment" bout. He came a long way and tracked down his opponent to goad him into it. Under the rule, if a player instigates in the final five minutes, he not only gets a fighting major, but a one-game suspension -- unless, of course, as the rule states, the Director of Hockey Operations reviews the matter and rules otherwise.
That's exactly what Campbell did. He declared that Malkin did indeed start the fight, but it was not exactly noteworthy (or words to that effect) and therefore no suspension was warranted. Malkin played in Game Three and the Pens, who had lost the first two at home, went on to win the series. Casual fans were shocked and amazed. Hardcore fans recognized it for what it was -- the protection of a star player -- and accepted it along the lines of "what else is new?"
That's why it's so difficult to take the GMs' head shots proposal as anything other than what it is: a maneuver designed to mostly sidestep the problem in the hope that Campbell with deal with it each time it comes up. Maybe, after the competition committee and Board of Governors get a grip on the new rule, it will be more solid and effective. But like people driving their "fixed" Toyotas, the reality is likely to be that you'll only be able to hope that nothing goes terribly wrong.