Hockey Canada's hardened stance on head shots, aimed specifically at minor hockey players, got nods of approval from a couple of NHL players long past their minor-hockey days.
Canada's governing body of hockey voted in "zero-tolerance" measures strengthening penalties for head shots during its annual general meeting in Calgary on the weekend.
Starting next season, in minor and female hockey, any contact with the head will be penalized whether the contact is intentional or not.
An errant stick glancing off an opposing players's helmet, for example, should no longer be overlooked, but is a two-minute minor.
Penalties can now escalate to a double minor and to a major and a game misconduct at the discretion of the referee depending on the violence of head contact.
"I think it's a good step if you can instill that in young players' minds at an early age, just for them to have that awareness out there, always knowing where a guy's head (is) and how dangerous it is for head injuries," Vancouver Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis said Monday.
Hamhuis, whose Canucks were preparing to face the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Wednesday, suffered two concussions this past season.
"If you get it ingrained in players early and get their habits changed, it will be a good thing," he added.
Canucks teammate Aaron Rome sat out the last two games of Vancouver's Western Conference final versus San Jose. He was hit hard by Sharks' forward Jamie McGinn in Game 3 of the series and appeared to be concussed, but has been cleared to play in the final.
McGinn received a boarding major and a game misconduct. Rome gave Hockey Canada's new policy a thumbs-up.
"It should be taught from a young age that you respect the other guys on the ice," Rome said. "It's good, especially starting at a young age, that they can't target or hit a player's head."
The penalty "head contact" will replace "checking to the head" next season.
Previously, a checking-to-the-head penalty in minor hockey was typically a two-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct. Now, a player can be booted from the game.
While discipline for head shots at the junior and senior level has been amalgamated under the title of head shots, the penalties at those levels remain the same, according to Hockey Canada manager of officiating Todd Anderson.
So in Junior A, B, C, D and senior hockey, a minor and a misconduct, or a major and a game misconduct can be assessed at the discretion of the referee. Also, a major penalty and game misconduct, or a match penalty, can be given to a player who injures an opponent under the head-contact rule.
"The junior and senior application has been in existence since we brought in checking to the head," Anderson explained. "It's just re-worded to include the minor and female.
"In junior and senior, you're just going to see, instead of a check-to-the-head penalty, it's just going to be known now as a two (minutes) and 10 (misconduct) for head contact. It's consistent for the rules they're playing under now."
Penticton Vees head coach Fred Harbinson says he's lost an NHL-drafted player in the first round of B.C. junior league playoffs each of the last two years. The reason? Concussions via a hit to the head.
Harbinson says Hockey Canada's new policy was a topic of discussion in the Vees office Monday morning.
"Anything we can do to eliminate some of these head shots, we're going to support and I think you have to start at the young ages," Harbinson said.
"It will be interesting to see how they call it in the future. We want more and more kids in our game. You see guys like Sidney Crosby not finishing the year and big names like that, all of a sudden parents are getting a little nervous about putting their kids in hockey and that's the last thing we want to see."
Harbinson is concerned more judgement calls have been added to the referee's plate under the new rules.
Hockey Canada is preparing educational materials to distribute mid-July to officials, parents and players, according to chief operating officer Scott Smith.
"We need to do some work to make sure fans and parents know what we're trying to accomplish and know what we're going to call, and hopefully that will help us manage some of the emotion that comes with a new rule change," he said.
"Our whole approach is to make the game as safe as possible for young players and to make we're doing everything we can to develop respect amongst young players. We're comfortable the rule changes we have move us in that direction."
Calgary midget triple-A coach Keith Fagnan says minor hockey coaches will be motivated to teach players checking minus head contact because the penalties are now harsher.
"I do think it's a good thing because it puts the onus back on the coaches to make sure they're teaching checking properly and making sure guys go right back to the fundamentals," said the head coach of the Calgary Northstars.
Hockey Calgary president Perry Cavanaugh acknowledged young referees will need guidance on how to call head contact penalties. He also hopes that parents and players will take it upon themselves to find out about the new policy before the season starts.
"I encourage parents to take the time to get a copy of the rule and to sit down and discuss it with their son or daughter and if they have questions to contact their local minor-hockey association seeking clarification," Cavanaugh said.
"This is a critically important initiative and everyone needs to be fully aware going into the season what the expectations are."
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