Anyone expecting immediate action on headshots from the NHL's 30 general managers this week is going to be disappointed.
It is highly unlikely a rule punishing hits to the head will be introduced for this season, although most GMs think a recommendation for next season will come out of their annual meetings. But just what form that will take - a major penalty plus game misconduct, or simply subjecting players to supplemental discipline through an automatic review by NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell - is anyone's guess.
"The league has always resisted rule changes in the middle of the season," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said yesterday. "It's unlikely there will be something this season, although I expect something for next season."
An informal survey of several GMs failed to produce a consensus of what sort of new rule, rule change or tweak will come here this week other than there will be something. The most likely target is blind-side hits to the head.
"I'm not sure what will happen," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. "I'm going down to listen. There are a lot of things to consider."
One reason for the uncertainty may be Campbell's failure to establish a committee of GMs to study the problem prior to the meeting to get a head start on a report to the rest of their peers.Shoalts 11 At every major GMs meeting, the general managers are broken into smaller groups of five or six and each is given one or two issues to study and then report to the full group. Last November, at the previous GMs meetings, Campbell said he would establish the working group on headshots and concussions at least a month before this week's meetings in order to make a deeper study of what is supposed to be a big issue with the NHL.
Two months ago, Campbell said he planned to strike the committee at least "three or four weeks" before the meetings. He also said his staff in the NHL's hockey department was busy putting together material for the group to study.
But that was the last heard of the supposed committee. None of the GMs surveyed knew why one was never formed. Campbell did not respond to a request for comment.
Two of the biggest concerns with introducing any sort of ban on hits to the head are lessening the physical nature of hockey and having players put themselves at risk in trying to use the rule to their advantage.
Rutherford, who has long campaigned for a ban on headshots, said the latter side effect became a problem when the NHL brought in penalties for hits from behind. While the rulebook says no penalty will be assessed if a player "intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back," the prospect of having an opponent take a five-minute major plus a game misconduct was too much for some players to resist turning into an onrushing opponent.
"The players are so smart, that every time we establish a rule they figure out a way around it," said Rutherford, who thinks at least some players will try to make themselves appear vulnerable to a blind-side hit. "We need to protect vulnerable players but there's a fine line. In hits from behind, players started to turn their backs to protect the puck and draw a penalty. But they put themselves in danger."
Burke is a former hawk who changed his thinking on headshots. He will no longer oppose a rule against blind-side hits to the head, which is a sure indication something is coming this week. But he, like many other GMs, is still struggling with how to reconcile any rule change with good, clean checking.
"We don't want to take anything away from hitting," Burke said. "That is what makes our game great."
However, Burke concedes there is a place for a penalty. He cited the now infamous case of the blind-side hit by Philadelphia Flyers centre Mike Richards on Florida Panthers forward David Booth early this season. Booth never saw Richards, who had time to avoid him, and suffered a serious concussion. He was out of the lineup until Jan. 31 and was unable to play for the United States at the Winter Olympics last month.
Richards was penalized under other rules for the hit but was not suspended by the league. He received a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct for intent to injure.
Burke said the GMs have to figure out a way to legislate hits such as Richards's out of the game but keep ones in which a player is hit on the head but it is not intentional and part of a clean hit.
He cited a shoulder-to-head check on his own player, forward Phil Kessel, by Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Mattias Ohlund. Ohlund, who is 6 foot 3, lowered his shoulder and hit Kessel, who is four inches shorter, on the head.
"His shoulder made contact with [Kessel's]head," Burke said. "But it was a clean hit. We don't want to take away the clean hit."
Headshots and concussions are expected to dominate the agenda at the three-day meetings, which begin today. Burke said the other items on the agenda are mostly routine.
"People are generally happy with the way the game is," he said.