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Florida Panthers forward David Booth is wheeled off the ice after being injured in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum)
Florida Panthers forward David Booth is wheeled off the ice after being injured in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum)

Stephen Brunt

Banning the blind-side hit Add to ...

Sometimes it is best to celebrate progress where you find it, even in the tiniest increments.

And so yesterday's news from the NHL's general managers' meeting that the group would be looking into blind-side head shots with the intention of somehow eliminating them from the game can only be construed as good.

A few months back, the exact same august group had considered the same issue with the encouragement of then-NHL Players' Association head Paul Kelly. They opted to do nothing, with the old-school voices clearly carrying the day.

Their argument - the same one you can hear their former compadre, Mike Milbury, make most any Saturday night - is that it's a dangerous game, it's not a game for sissies, that sometimes that means people will get hurt, and that's an acceptable risk which every professional hockey player assumes the minute he steps on the ice.

Of course carried to its extreme, similar logic once upon a time discouraged players from donning helmets, and now is still part of the rationale for removing visors, which they've been forced to wear since minor hockey, the minute they arrive in the NHL.

It is a dangerous game. It does, and should, include plenty of physical contact. It can be violent.

There is considerable risk involved, given the speed, the sticks, the skates, the blades, the boards, the hard-shell shoulder and elbow pads, the inevitable collisions, and sometimes people are going to get hurt, sometimes very badly.

Still, if you can mitigate that risk, if you get rid of some of the most extreme danger - especially when it comes to head injuries - if you can eliminate the most gratuitous stuff without altering the essential nature of the sport, surely that's at least worth exploring.

Not so long ago, guys such as Brian Burke, an influential figure among his peers, didn't think so, arguing that any attempt to legislate against head shots would inevitably lead to the elimination of body contact, period, since there were so many in-the-moment variables that could turn what would otherwise be a benign, legal check into something potentially catastrophic.

Now, some of them, including Burke, have subtly changed their tune. So a committee will be struck, investigations will be made, suggestions offered and eventually rule changes will be proposed. The goal will be to eliminate, through punishment, the most egregious head shots, in which the victim doesn't see it coming, and has no opportunity to protect himself.

The GMs don't believe there are a whole lot of those - maybe a dozen a season, maybe half of that, though under the current rules most would now be considered at least borderline acceptable. So those who see in this the beginnings of a far more pacific sport are fooling themselves.

That said, attitudes have obviously shifted, at least in that particular meeting room. There is an ever-greater awareness of the long-term consequences of head injuries. There is a greater understanding that the combination of bigger/stronger/faster with what is close to weaponized equipment could - and odds are eventually will - result in something truly horrific happening in the middle of an NHL game. And there's now an unwillingness, despite all of the old tough-guy posturing, to watch someone brain injured, someone paralyzed, perhaps someone killed, and then sit back and offer that it's just part of the game.

Writing or rewriting those rules is going to be a tricky business, not everyone is going to be satisfied with the outcome, and the first time afterward that a player is laid out unconscious, you'll hear from both the hawks and doves that it obviously didn't work.

But what you're not hearing today, from a group that has traditionally represented the borderline-reactionary elements of the sport, is the suggestion that the boys be left to their own devices and allowed to settle things among themselves, because that's how it has always been done in hockey.

"It's never going to be a safe workplace", Burke said, "but we've got to make it as safe as we can."

Not exactly a call to revolution. Given the source, though, you can feel a bit of a seismic shock.

 

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