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(Jonathan Daniel/2011 Getty Images)
(Jonathan Daniel/2011 Getty Images)

ROY MACGREGOR

Confusion in all directions on head-shot rule Add to ...

They did not seem eager to disclose much of what was discussed during the NHL general managers' meeting at The Langham, a posh downtown hotel here.

So let us presume each player will be outfitted with a GPS by next season.

It is the only way we will ever sort out this north-south and east-west lunacy that is sadly at the core of the endless head-shot controversy.

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Rule 48, which was created a year ago to deal with Matt Cooke and other headhunters, makes a profound distinction between north-south hits and east-west hits. For those unfamiliar with hockey's often silly nomenclature - half-boards, stretch pass, puck support, quick stick, etc. - north-south is considered to be one player coming down the ice and being checked head on. East-west, on the other hand, is a hit coming from the side, laterally, and if deemed blind side it is likely to be punished further by suspension.

It matters squat whether the rink in question faces north, west, south or east - north is always one goal, south always the other.

Follow?

In the current raging battle over a hit delivered by Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome on Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton - a hit that sent Horton to hospital with concussion and Rome to the penalty box, then to the sidelines with a four-game suspension - Rule 48 was said not to come into play because the play was north-south.

In fact, it was really a southwest-northeast hit, but no matter. The league decided to use the interference penalty as the basis for the supplementary punishment given Rome.

Wait, though: It gets more complicated still. In Vancouver's earlier series with the Chicago Blackhawks, Canucks forward Raffi Torres levelled Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook with a hit to the head that most thought would surely lead to suspension. Not so, the league ruled, saying there was a hitting zone behind the net where space is so confined that players cannot truly go north-south and so east-west will be considered north-south in that zone for purposes of punishment. The league said this had been the case all along; no player has since been found who knew about this peculiar exception.

Rule 48, therefore, can be said to have a notwithstanding clause.

"If you're a player," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said this week, "confusion is obviously part of your vocabulary."

So confused has Rule 48 become that no one seems certain of anything any longer. The rule was brought in to deal with earlier career-threatening headshots to Florida Panthers forward David Booth by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers and to Boston forward Marc Savard by Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Neither hit led to supplemental discipline by the league.

The rule is now its own raging controversy.

"It's too convoluted," TSN and NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said.

"If you're David Booth or Marc Savard, your reaction has to be, 'Are you kidding me? That's four games? What about what happened to me?'"

Similarly, what about the Torres hit on Seabrook? Former NHL referee Dan Marouelli, who retired last year, told CBC Wednesday that "had somebody suspended Torres" - perhaps by interpreting the rules differently - a message would have been sent and "Nathan Horton still might be playing."

All the same, the four-game suspension handed Rome by Mike Murphy, the league's senior vice-president of hockey operations, gives people like McGuire some hope that the fog is lifting off the ice in the NHL.

"What this is," said McGuire, "is an indication that sands are shifting. They're getting it right. It's taking a while, but they're getting it right."

And so, on a hot afternoon in Boston the 30 league GMs gathered at The Langham to talk about Rule 48 and to hear a presentation from the NHL's so-called blue-ribbon panel on player safety: former players Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk, both now GMs, and Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake, who joined league offices when they retired from playing.

That nothing was truly resolved was apparent the moment the meeting lifted, with GMs fleeing the room with the same shouted "I have a plane to catch," and only a very few staying to talk. It was apparent in what they said and did not say that clarity is still some time off.

Wisely, it appears the panel recommended to the GMs that the words blind side no longer pertain - as precise direction is sometimes even difficult to determine with a Tom Tom.

Take blind side out, broaden the scope of hits to the head - yet stick, as Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke put it, "with that basic understanding that this is a full-contact sport."

"There's grey area in all that," Nieuwendyk added, "because we have a physical sport."

As for banning all hits to the head, as other sports have and as science and society is increasingly calling on the NHL to do and as other hockey levels have already done, it just isn't on - at least not yet.

"We're trying to get to the same place," Shanahan insisted.

Agreed, it's just that no one has yet found the GPS that can take everyone there.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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