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Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome before facing the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of an NHL hockey game, in Denver. The NHL suspended Rome for four games Tuesday for his blindside hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton during Boston's 8-1 victory Monday night. (David Zalubowski/AP2010)
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome before facing the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of an NHL hockey game, in Denver. The NHL suspended Rome for four games Tuesday for his blindside hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton during Boston's 8-1 victory Monday night. (David Zalubowski/AP2010)

ROY MacGREGOR

Rome hit wakes up the NHL Add to ...

Ah, the wonderful irony of it all.

The NHL suddenly plucks a new rule out of thin air - Rule 88: No more finger wagging - just as the league itself finally acknowledges that angry public finger that has been shaking in its direction ever since Sidney Crosby went down in the Winter Classic.

The decision Tuesday to suspend Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome for four games for his vicious hit to the head of Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton means neither will be seen again this spring, Rome sent to the press box and Horton rushed to hospital with a "severe concussion."

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It is an absurd tradeoff - Horton the Bruins' second leading scorer, with the winning goals in two previous Game 7s, Rome sometimes dressing, with but a single point - but at least there is punishment this time around, even if the harm is far more to the Bruins than the Canucks.

The NHL still has its problems with proportion, giving Rome four games for headhunting while Sean Avery of the New York Rangers was given six games for badmouthing, but far better this than the non-punishment of so many previous head hits because the league could find no rule to apply.

Bizarre, that, given that at the same time Rome was being punished, the NHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations, Mike Murphy, also announced an end to the current "crap" of players wagging their fingers in reference to an earlier biting incident that went unpunished. According to ESPN, the next glove finger that wags in a scrum will cost the player a two-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct.

There was, pitifully, debate in the press box as Horton was carted off the ice on a stretcher as to whether the hit fell under the league's convoluted Rule 48 that was instituted a year ago to deal with blindside hits to the head. This rule has been twisted to a point where the Supreme Court could hardly rule on it - leaving critics to wonder why the league all along has not simply gone with its several "intent to injure" rules.

The Rome case, in fact, suggests that the league is finally chasing public opinion rather than ignoring it.

This is important. Outcries against such violence have gone on for more than a century. Royal commissions have failed, courts have failed, politicians have failed, the media has failed, the argument that "it's a man's game" rebuffing all calls for reform. A dozen years ago, American star Mike Modano asked on the cover of The Hockey News, "Do we have to wait for someone to be killed or paralyzed?" Sadly, it seemed we would indeed have to.

However, this year, 2011, has a different feel. It began to change on Day 1, Jan. 1, when Canada's Olympic hero and the game's finest player, Sidney Crosby, went down with a concussion that cost him his season and may still threaten his career. Public opinion rose against head hits of any kind - accidental or deliberate - in the months since and roared as scientific evidence proved that the only true protection for the fragile human brain is not so much the helmet as it is common sense. Last month, in a surprising but welcome move, Hockey Canada banned all hits to the head in an effort to make the game safer for minor-league players who emulate their NHL heroes.

The NHL has been feeling the pressure to act far more decisively than with its flawed Rule 48. They have moved on concussion protocol - even if it is the equivalent of closing the barn door after the horses - and they are restructuring their discipline office with clear hints that punishment will be more severe next season.

The game's leading expert on concussion, Charles Tator, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, believes there might even be a silver lining in this dark cloud that has settled over what had, up until Monday night, been a stellar final series.

That hit by Rome on Horton, Tator said, is "a blight on my love of hockey - one of the most blatant, deliberate hits I have ever seen." In his opinion, a repeat of such a play by Rome should have him "banned for life" - whatever it takes to create the strongest possible deterrent.

Tator said he was appalled Tuesday morning to listen while sports radio argued over whether the hit was blind - thereby bringing into play Rule 48.

"I don't think this one requires any cerebral activity on the part of the observer to figure out what was going on here," Tator said. "To expect Horton to have eyes in the back of his head, to be looking 360 degrees to see which direction the hit is going to come when you don't even have the puck, that is expecting too much of the victim. This is really blaming the victim for not having 360-degree vision, which is absurd in my view."

The NHL itself seems to be moving away from their deeply flawed regulation, with Murphy directly stating: "This has nothing to do with Rule 48." It was called an interference penalty and determined a late hit - which led to the suspension.

Where the good can come out of all this, Tator said, is that the hit stands as the perfect "example of what we absolutely have to banish from hockey." It accepts no debate over accidental or not, though Dr. Tator believes that "accidental" is no more a valid excuse in head hits than it is in high sticks or, for that matter, a defenceman firing the puck over the boards in his own end.

In his opinion, the hit, the public revulsion and the punishment - severe enough or not - could mark June 6, 2011, as a day as significant as Jan. 1, the day Sidney Crosby fell.

"I think it does help," Tator said.

"We keep thinking, 'Maybe this is the one that will make them deal with this appropriately - and maybe it is."

At the risk of a minor penalty, Tator cannot resist adding one small, but necessary, wag of his finger.

"But they really should have stopped this a long time ago."

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