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NHL vice president of hockey and business development Brendan Shanahan speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. (Darren Calabrese)
NHL vice president of hockey and business development Brendan Shanahan speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. (Darren Calabrese)

ROY MACGREGOR

Ban on all hits to head not in cards, yet Add to ...



There are 31 general managers gathered around the table in South Florida, where the NHL is reconsidering its rules in light of heightened concerns about concussions.

That's 30 GMs of existing franchises, and one seat for the 30-million-or-so Canadians who consider themselves astute general managers when it comes to hockey. As for those many Canadians who don't care about their national game, their vote goes by proxy to those few Americans, relatively speaking, who do.

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But make no mistake, public opinion has had a say - even if not as much as it had hoped.

"Sometimes," said Brendan Shanahan, the former player who is now a league vice-president, "when the public gets so focused on something like that, it improves the climate for change."

Shanahan was quick to point out, however, the league had already been examining its stance well prior to such recent attention-grabbing incidents as the Jan. 1 concussion that has kept Sidney Crosby, the NHL's best player, out of action, and the March 8 hit by Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara that put Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty on a stretcher, leading to massive public outcry, particularly in Quebec, when the league decided no supplementary discipline against Chara was required.

Shanahan equated the situation to receiving a call to play golf "and you're already on the 14th tee."

"This meeting was happening with or without the Chara hit," he said. "We didn't just drum up 15 years of evidence and data over the last seven days."

All the same, the public concern - echoed by politicians such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and hockey legend Ken Dryden, as well as by such pivotal NHL sponsors as Air Canada and Via Rail Canada Inc. - has rippled like the ocean itself along the beach where three days of meetings will sew up Wednesday.

Though there has been a widespread call to ban all hits to the head - as Dryden put it: "It's time to stop being stupid" - the league refused to go that distance, though it did take a few promising steps in the right direction.

On Monday, commissioner Gary Bettman presented a five-point plan that included improvements on concussion diagnosis, improving the safety of boards and glass surrounding NHL rinks and spreading the responsibility for actions beyond the players to coaches and perhaps even team owners.

"Teams have got to take responsibility for the actions of their players," said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, whose club owner, Mario Lemieux, has recommended large fines be imposed on teams that fail to comply.

"The game constantly evolves," Shanahan said Tuesday. He believes such "tweaking" will become a regular occurrence every few years for the league.

The GMs simply could not agree after a second day of discussions on any rule that would apply to all hits to the head - though a handful of the 30, including Shero, are known to favour such a ban.

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said there was no appetite for "a blanket ban" as such hits can also come from a perfectly legal body check. The league maintains most concussions this year have come from legal hits, though there is much public debate over what should be legal and what not.

Burke maintained the gathering needed to avoid "changing the fabric of the game," while at the same time improving safety in what has always been and must remain a tough, physical sport.

So while many fans will be disappointed the NHL has not seen fit to join lesser leagues that forbid all hits to the head - accidental or not - fans who favour safer hockey may be slightly mollified by Tuesday's initiative to return to, and enforce, a couple of long-standing rules.

For as long as the game has been played, there have been rules against "charging" and "boarding," but in recent decades both rules have largely fallen by the wayside. Charging, for instance, used to be deemed when a player had taken at least three quick strides to hit another - while today, with the game far faster, players are more often "coasting" at high speed when they take aim at an opponent.

NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell says the idea of looking again at these two old rules came when one player - Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza - happened to ask at a committee meeting: "What exactly is boarding?"

Even Steve Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning GM who starred for two decades in the league, said "Prior to today's meeting I maybe had read the rule" - but had little understanding of it.

The two penalties are rule 41 (boarding) and rule 42 (charging), each broken down into a long list of definitions and variations, depending on severity. Boarding is called to penalize a player who checks in manner that causes the opponent "to be thrown violently into the boards." Charging is called when a player covers come distance to "violently check" an opponent.

Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray says the rules are better understood if they move beyond "violent" and simply focus on the "disregard" of one player for the safety of another. "We want stronger rulings," he said.

The other GMs agreed, saying, come summer, recommendations will be made that, by next season, the league will call such penalties and supplementary discipline in the form of more suspensions and longer suspensions will be in place.

Murray said he had suggested it was time "to rethink" the red line, perhaps bringing the two-line pass back to slow up attacking players, but it went nowhere.

As for the call to allow defencemen more latitude in obstructing attacking players to slow matters down, it, too, failed. "If you let a little of it go," Murray said of allowing obstruction back into the game, "it would be a lot before too long."

"We have rules," Shanahan said. "We're going to call the rules."

"There's work to be done," Bettman added.

For the public GM, as well - full-time work in prodding the NHL to continue with these welcome early steps until the national game gets to where the nation wants it.

And where the players, of every age, need it.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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