By Stu Hackel
NHL general managers began meeting today in Boca Raton, Florida, and there is some thought that this gathering -- coming after the increased public outcry against the rise in head injuries and the league's leniency in punishing players who inflict them -- may be the most important one in a while. Further steps to protect the head is a major agenda item.
It's uncertain at the moment how far the GMs will go in making changes to the existing rules and standards of supplemental discipline. But TSN, NBC and Sports Illustrated's Pierre McGuire said on Ottawa radio Team 1200 (audio) that he had spoken to a number of GMs and league decision-makers and the GMs are "very serious." McGuire called them "an extremely motivated and focused group right now. They understand; they're hearing the message of the fans. Most of the enlightened general managers don't want to alienate the fan base of the National Hockey League and the corporate sponsors of the National Hockey League."
Just as last year when the GMs met in March in the shadow of the Matt Cooke - Marc Savard blindside head shot, this year's gathering will take place after Zdeno Chara's hit badly injured Max Pacioretty, as well as a long string of incidents that includes the Penguins' Sidney Crosby being out of the lineup since early January (Crosby skated today for the first time since being hit head-first into the boards by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5).
There had been earlier indications that the NHL felt it had, for the moment, done enough work on headchecking with the passage of Rule 48 last summer and GMs would turn their focus to other troubling issues, like boarding and hits from behind. But a combination of factors -- including the rise in concussions this season and the news that Bob Probert was suffering from a degenerative brain disease -- thrust head shots back into prominence and the agenda was revised not long before the meetings to revisit the issue.
TSN's Darren Dreger reported Monday morning that the meeting "opened with a full video presentation on the plague of head injuries, which is believed to have included the number of concussions this season, where the injuries appear more likely to be sustained on the ice, as well as a full overview of Rule 48 and the supplemental discipline that has been applied in the cases where warranted.
"A two-minute headchecking penalty is expected to be tabled for consideration among the breakout group discussions. This penalty would be called for any shoulder to the head contact and those who support the additional rule believe it will provide a constant reminder to players that headchecking, for safety reasons can no longer be tolerated."
The level of support that any new rule proposals will receive is an open question. TSN's Bob McKenzie surveyed all the GMs prior to the meeting and discovered that 15 supported broadening the current rules, and that there is a feeling that "something more" needs to be done. Ten favored the status quo. Two favored a total ban on headchecks. Three refused to be pigeonholed in one of those three camps. But it was uncertain how that sentiment will translate into rules when proposals are put before the group. (Of course, any proposal that emerges from this meeting must go to the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee and then be forwarded for final approval by the NHL Board of Governors before it can be adopted for play.)
Sabres GM Darcy Regier told Bud Bailey of The Buffalo News, "You have 30 general managers with differing views. One of the things the league has done is bring a lot of factual information in to have a conversation, versus guys saying, 'I think it's this.' The league has done a very good job in that regard. There are equipment issues. Those things will be discussed."
Regier expressed a common theme the managers have sounded for a number of years: that the fundamental physical character of the game needs to be protected, but he also recognized that the NHL needs to do more to protect players. "One of the problems you have -- just because a player puts his head out there, or has his head down, that doesn't give him a license to skate from one end to the other and not be hit," he said. "On the other hand, some of the onus has been moved from the hittee to the hitter. That awareness has to be heightened and may need to be expanded."
He added, "The blindside hits are addressed; it's important for us to expand on that and provide in some way and provide additional protection. That may not be the prevailing thought, though."
One issue that will be forwarded by Montreal's Pierre Gauthier will be the severity of supplemental discipline. There have been objections for years about the perceived inconsistencies of NHL suspensions, including bans to Sean Avery for spoken words and to James Wisniewski for obscene gestures while a dangerous play that causes severe injury can go unpunished or is treated with some leniency. This dissonance grew after the Chara-Pacioretty incident in which Chara was given a major penalty and game misconduct but not suspended. It caused Canadiens owner Geoff Molson to discuss the matter with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who, Molson said, "agreed to make this issue a priority at the next General Managers meeting....Pierre Gauthier, our General Manager, will be present at this meeting and has already expressed his wish to carry out, clearly, our message to his 29 counterparts and to the League."
It wasn't the first time in recent weeks that an owner expressed concern about the league's punishment. Penguins owner Mario Lemieux voiced his disgust after the league handed down what he considered minimal fines and suspensions to the Islanders and Penguins following their brawling match of Feb. 11, which featured 15 fighting majors, 14 game misconducts and 346 minutes in penalties.
It has been nearly unheard of for ownership to publicly criticize the league since Bettman became commissioner in 1993. Prior to that, public criticism by GMs and owners of league decisions was common, but Bettman has regularly issued gag orders and threatened fines against teams who break ranks. Fines have been levied, including Kings GM Dean Lombardi being whacked to the tune of $50,000 in January for his emotional allegation that NHL Vice President Mike Murphy ruled against his team on a goal-no goal video review because Murphy had once been turned down for the Kings' GM job.
But the Molson and Lemieux statements signal a certain unrest among owners, as well, about the current state of NHL discipline not being where they think it should be. Combined with the outcry by fans, media and corporate sponsors like Air Canada and Via Rail, the spotlight is on the GMs perhaps as never before.