Head shots battle just beginning

Publish date:

There are times, many times, when I think that NHL stands not for National Hockey League, but No Hope League. Surprisingly, this is not one of those times.

Based on the most recent statements from the NHL and the Players Association, at least part of a new rule to penalize blows to the head will be in place for tonight's games as well as the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. Perhaps the best that can be said is that even though the two sides didn't exactly sit down and reason together, they did find an "accommodation" that will allow the NHL to fast-track a proposal by the general managers that was slated to take effect next season -- assuming the PA and the owners signed off on it.

This is a good thing for the NHL and especially for the players, but there is still much to be done. Judging by the way it's being set up, that remainng effort will involve politics, power, money and quite possibly the fear that the PA will have a powerful person in charge before the final rule is written.

The PA, still leaderless in the wake of the firings of Executive Directors Bob Goodenow, Ted Saskin, Paul Kelly and Ian Penney, is now taking "advice" from former Major League Baseball union head Donald Fehr. The NHLPA had proposed its own version of a head shots rule -- via Kelly -- and it was quickly dismissed by the league. Clearly, there are still some noses out of joint on the PA side.

It's worth noting that, in the wake of a rising tide of public opinion, media pressure and jokes by comedians such as David Letterman, the NHL's Board of Governors voted to adopt the GMs' rule without the consent of the competition committee on which five players are members. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly issued a media release that stated the league was entirely within its rights to bypass it. That sent the message to the PA that it was, in the eyes of the owners, inconsequential and would be treated accordingly. Noses again fully disjointed, the PA challenged the league to a fight and the league indicated its willingness to accept. A ridiculous and confusing standoff ensued before a comprise was floated.

The PA has come out with a release that says its executive board endorses the decision of the five players on the committee and will support the NHL -- but only for the rest of the season and the playoffs. The PA expects that the rule will be revisited in the offseason for more debate and possible changes. Essentially what has been agreed to is that there will be supplemental discipline regarding head shots and it will be under the direction of Colin Campbell. This indicates that there will be no on-ice penalties imposed, leaving the league in the dicey position of suspending players for actions that weren't penalized. Not exactly a clean rule, but suspensions without penalties are nothing new in the NHL, so no one should be surprised.

"This temporary implementation will ensure that the joint NHLPA-NHL competition committee will have time to develop and consider a proper and full-time rule, one that includes an on-ice penalty component, this summer," the NHLPA said in a release. "We are encouraged by the League's recent willingness to explore on-ice rule changes as a means of reducing player injuries and have no doubt that by working together a safer working environment can be established for all NHLPA members."

Note the word "recent" -- it's almost dripping with sarcasm.

Weighing in for the first time since this entire sorry episode got underway, Commissioner Gary Bettman opted to take a bow. "We believe this is the right thing to do for the game and for the safety of our players," he said in a release. "The elimination of these types of hits should significantly reduce the number of injuries, including concussions, without adversely affecting the level of physicality in the game."

What does it all mean? Despite the fact that the NHL has given only lip service to reining in head shots for far too long, the commissioner can now take the high ground even though there is still no on-ice rule in place. The league also sent a not-so-veiled hint that it would have preferred to have had this resolved before the players have a new leader in place, particularly if it's going to be Fehr. If it is Fehr, the players should prepare themselves for a fight on a multitude of levels including a test of whether the league can bypass the PA and the competition committee regarding the creation and enforcement of new rules.

"Without trying to throw anyone under the bus here, let's be real," Daly said in an e-mail to ESPN that appears designed to throw the PA under the bus, the train, and every plane that has not yet left the ground. "This is a rule that's intended to make the game safer for the players. It's a no-brainer. The PA needs a hockey person, or at a minimum a player, who is willing to take charge, to step up and make a decision in the best interests of the game.

"It's one thing to punt on all the more mundane issues surrounding the game until the union has a new executive director and a clear direction. We are used to that. But this is different. Someone needs to show leadership, and they need to do it fast."

Nice. And tell us again when the Commissioner, who has long claimed to have the power, is going to issue an edict for mandatory eye shields and no-touch icing -- rule changes that would "make the game safer for players" but have been held up for years by the same GMs who think the loss of an eye or the breaking of an ankle is a small price to pay to keep physicality in the game. Perhaps the commissioner or at least someone in his office who is a "hockey person" or has played the game might be willing to "step up and take charge" on those issues, but we digress.

Meanwhile the PA has its own delicate line to walk. There's speculation that the union has been dragging its feet because: a) it's angry that Kelly's proposal, which had some real teeth, was so cavalierly dismissed (ironic since the players later dismissed Kelly) and; b) without on-ice rules and some framework for suspensions (two games, five, ten) the players are at risk of losing massive amounts of money due to the supplemental discipline. That's an area where, without limits, they have no control as to the number of games a player is suspended or the amount of money he's likely to lose.

It's not a popular position when a player is being wheeled off the ice on a stretcher, but pro sports always has an element of money even when safety should be and, in this case, is the point. The recent eight-game suspension of Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski cost him $268,292.72 even though the only on-ice penalty called was charging. Via supplemental discipline, Campbell determined that Wisniewski "delivered a hit to the head area of an unsuspecting opponent" as the basis for his discipline and fine.

Of course, Campbell refused to discipline or fine Mike Richards or Matt Cooke for the exact same offense: a hit to the head of an unsuspecting opponent. Little wonder that the PA wants some understanding of what the penalties will be for a hit to the head, what fines may result and who has the power to decide them.

Like I said up top, there is hope for player safety starting tonight, but one should also note that the offseason will be an interesting time for all parties involved.