By Jim Kelley
September 23, 2010

The NHL this week released a video (below) to illustrate the parameters of a new rule regarding illegal hits to the head. It also tacked on a series of calls that will be made for other hits, illegal checks and contact near the end boards.

The video is informative...and slick. It's maybe a little too slick, given the background music that makes it look like a video game as players try to separate opponents' heads from their necks, but mine is a small complaint.

The video opens with two of the most controversial head shots from last season: Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke delivering a blow to the head of Marc Savard that left the Bruins' center concussed and his future (still) in doubt. We also see Philadelphia's Mike Richards deliver a shot to the head of Florida's David Booth that, with a second hit later in the season from Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek, left the Panthers' best offensive player on a constant concussion watch list.

There is much to be discussed here, including what will surely be a hue and cry from blood-sport boosters about the ongoing "pansification" of hockey. In hindsight, though, the best thing about the Savard and Booth incidents is the undeniable fact that they forced the NHL's general managers to cross a line that many of them didn't seem to want to even approach.

The Cooke hit appeared to be nothing more than a deliberate attempt to injure a player who never had a chance to see the blow coming. After it was struck, the NHL Hockey Operations department dug itself into a deep hole by refusing to discipline Cooke, but his obvious intent and the degree of Savard's injury created a massive outcry for change that the NHL found hard to ignore.

Richards' hit on Booth, also a non-supplemental discipline event, only added to the outcry. Booth stated repeatedly during the offseason and at the start of the Panthers' training camp that he's fine and has had no long-term effects, but he knows that with two serious blows to the head in a short period of time the Panthers and the NHL are wise to keep an eye on him.

The league is to be applauded for including these shots in the video. Clean hitting is surely a part of the game, but in the past, the NHL has regarded these types of devastating blows as both clean and a part of the game. In changing the rule, the NHL is apparently attempting to change some of the game's culture while holding itself accountable.

Any on-ice official who looks the other way when such a hit occurs this season will be held to a high standard of scrutiny. The video illustrates the new rules not only for on-ice officials and the NHL's Hockey Operations staff, but for the media and general public. For the league to ignore what is so clearly evident will only bring down more criticism, and one can be relatively certain that the first time a gray area shot goes uncalled, there will be questions as to not only the competence of the on-ice officials, but the backbone of hockey ops when it comes to cracking down on violations.

The way the rule is worded; there is no "somewhat acceptable" blow to the head. The initial wording was that a minor penalty could be called at the discretion of the referee, but after howls of protest from inside and outside the game, it was changed to make the infraction a major penalty with the possibility of additional supplementary discipline. This isn't a bad thing for protecting players. Another amazing aspect of the video is that the NHL seems intent on cracking down on other dirty elements of the game that are covered under existing rules but increasingly ignored.

Darcy Tucker's infamous knee-crippling hit on Michael Peca from 2002 is a case in point. Tucker seemed intent on going low enough to undercut Peca at the knees. That is a supremely dangerous play, but it had become somewhat common. Even without public pressure, the NHL has seen fit to warn players that the existing rules for such hits are now going to be enforced.

In that same light, the video shows that instances of massive hits along the end boards during obvious icing plays have also become common. There was a push to eliminate these hits with a no-touch icing rule, and the league looked at that idea, and a variation, at its summer Research and Development Camp. No rules changes came out of it, but at the very least the NHL took a step forward in announcing via the video that such plays will be called within the existing rules. This is a major victory for many in the leauge.

Former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith has argued for years that these kinds of already illegal hits need to be eliminated. "A guy goes back to play the puck on an icing and it's a race for the puck and that's the way it should be," Smith told me during a recent interview in Toronto. "But why does he have to be a target? You shouldn't be allowed to trip him up with a poke of your stick into his blades, but we've allowed that to happen and on a regular basis. You shouldn't be allowed to come from 10 feet away and slam him face-first into the glass with a hit from behind, but that's happening as well. Why would we ignore tripping and boarding in that area of the ice where a player is most at risk, but call it everywhere else? It makes no sense."

As with all new rule changes, the devil isn't just in the details, it's in the commitment to enforcement. In releasing this video, the NHL has put itself on record as at least attempting to set a higher standard. We can only hope that the league adheres to it.

As sad as it seems, Marc Savard's injury will apparently go a long way toward keeping the NHL on track regarding enforcement. The super-slick center with the soft hands and great vision came to the Bruins' training camp intent on starting where he left off, but he apparently didn't pass muster at a local Boston hospital because of post-concussion syndrome.

Savard left camp and went home shortly after his medical evaluation, prompting ESPN to report, via sources, that he was likely finished for the season and his career was in danger. This prompted a harsh rebuke from Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

"No, no absolutely not," Chiarelli said of the report that Savard will be out for the entire 2010-11 season. "I wouldn't normally issue that kind of statement, but the claim was almost completely contradictory to what we had put out before. And I felt strongly I had to say something. Obviously Marc is suffering from post-concussion syndrome. That's a fact. I mean, who knows with these things? But based on everything I've been told, we expect him back relatively soon."

Relatively soon are the key words. They are also the great unknown. Chiarelli acknowledged that Savard will not accompany the team to Prague for its season opening game against the Phoenix Coyotes, but he declined (and rightfully so) to go beyond that point. Savard had managed to get onto the ice during the second round of the playoffs last spring and was expected to participate in training camp, but post-concussion syndrome is different from the immediate impact effects. It's impossible to set any kind of return date until a player can function without symptoms that often include headache, fatigue from even the slightest physical exertion, and, sometimes, depression.

"I can't say anything with complete certainty," Chiarelli said. "But based on what we saw when we saw him on Friday, and what the doctors told me and my own observations, what I am saying is that all indications suggest that he will not be out for the year. I don't know what else to say. I'm not a doctor. We've seen him for one day. We've allowed him to go home (to Ontario) and rest, because he has got these symptoms. He'll be coming back to Boston at some point and I expect we'll know more then. Beyond that, I expect him to play this year and I expect him to play soon. What is soon? No, it's not the start of the season. It could be two weeks into the season, a month, it could be a week."

Chiarelli didn't say that it could also be never, but he at least made it clear that, unlike the published reports, doctors have not made that ruling.

David Booth meanwhile is making a different argument. He told reporters in Florida that he felt fine after the Panthers' first scrimmage, and that he expects to play the season without incident

"It's not an issue because I know I'm healed," Booth said. "I kind of knew what to do after the second [hit to the head], how much time to take off and when to start working out and things, so it's all good now. The rest, I've put all that behind me. There are no excuses. All I'm thinking about right now is getting ready for the start of the season, getting right back into it, getting physical and being a better player. It's the same mindset I had last year."

Booth played just 28 games last season and missed a seemingly sure shot at the Olympics. Any relapse would be a setback for him, the Panthers and the NHL.

It's hard to believe that there could be any more pressure on Montreal's starting goaltender-by-default, but after just one exhibition game, that appears to be the case.

Carey Price, handed the job after the Canadiens traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis following a dramatic postseason season run, performed poorly in Montreal's first preseason game -- a 4-2 loss to Boston. Price gave up the first four goals on just nine shots and later was AWOL in the Habs' dressing room.

Price wasn't at fault on all the goals, but he did receive more than a smattering of boos and some mock cheers after making routine saves. It was that kind of treatment -- along with his reaction to it -- that caused problems with Montreal's fan base last season. It's also the last thing the Habs wanted to see in the early going, especially since the fans hold the assumption that management traded Halak and kept Price because signing Halak was outside the team's budget.

That's a logical hockey decision in a salary-capped world, but it doesn't sell well in the marketplace, especially a marketplace like Montreal where contending for the Stanley Cup every season is a fan demand, no excuses tolerated. An exhibition game this early in the fray should never matter, but when it comes to Price and Montreal's fans, all the norms of preseason hockey seem to be off the table.

In my view, no one should ever have to pay for a ticket to an exhibition game, but they do and it's worth noting that preseason is where Minnesota's improbable streak came to an end. The Wild had claimed 409 consecutive home sellouts as of the end of last season, the third longest such streak in NHL history. It was snapped on Wednesday by a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues.

The run constituted 369 regular season games, 13 playoff matches and 27 exhibitions, but the end was not totally unexpected. Money is tight in today's economy, the Minnesota Twins are having a sensational season, and the Vikings are tapping into the area's sports cash flow with Brett Favre and Super Bowl hopes.

The view from here is that preseason games shouldn't even count as a sellout event, but they do in hockey-mad Minnesota. Though the streak fell short of marks established by Colorado (487) and Detroit (452), it is still a noteworthy accomplishment.

What remains to be seen is whether competition from baseball and the NFL, as well as people reining-in their discretionary spending, will hurt the Wild once the regular season begins. The team is well past the newness stage that began when it replaced the North Stars after their move to Dallas. The Wild has also lacked real gate appeal since former scoring star Marian Gaborik left to join the New York Rangers. Fans clearly want more for their money than just their team being in the NHL.

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