The prospect of a war between the NHL and the players union increased last night when the league announced its board of governors unanimously approved a rule change on head shots that officially does not exist.
Under the new rule, blindside hits to the head will result in a minor or major penalty plus an automatic review by the league, which could result in a suspension. Because of the public uproar over the issue, the NHL wants to implement the review portion of the rule immediately for such hits and leave the minor and major penalty calls for next season.
In a terse statement on its website, the NHL said the governors, "unanimously approved a rule prohibiting a lateral, back-pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact. The timing and details of implementation are being worked on by the NHL's hockey operations department in conjunction with representatives of the NHL Players' Association."
The action is contrary to the labour agreement between the league and the players. As the NHLPA noted last night, the governors are supposed to vote only after new rules or rule changes are formally passed on by the league's competition committee. In this case, the five players on the competition committee have still not given their approval for the new rule even though some of them have indicated they are prepared to approve part of the new rule for the rest of this season as long as there is more debate and perhaps a tweak of the current proposal for next season.
But NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league does not require clearance from the competition committee and made it clear league executives lost patience with the players on the competition committee. "As we have stated repeatedly in the past, the creation of the competition committee has not eliminated the role of the board of governors in passing and implementing rules that it deems to be in the best interests of the game," Daly said via e-mail.
"While we are intent on continuing to work with the [NHLPA]and the competition committee as we have been doing for the better part of two weeks now, to the extent we do not receive a timely answer, we will have to make our own decisions in the best interests of the game and the players."
The league's rule proposal was drafted by the NHL's 30 general managers at their annual meetings two weeks ago. After it announced plans to fast-track the head-shots rule, the league was hoping to implement it quickly but the five players on the competition committee did not go along immediately.
Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations, said the issue of player safety is too important for the NHL to worry about procedure.
"We need to move on this as quick as possible," Campbell said in an e-mail message. "We have what we need … does not matter what order [the proposal is approved] Are we not missing the point - reduce concussions as soon as possible from these type of hits? Let's not miss the point here. We don't negotiate our players' safety."
However, the NHLPA made it clear in a statement last night that the procedure in the collective agreement must be followed.
"To date, the competition committee has neither agreed on a proposal, nor forwarded a proposal to the board of governors for its vote. As we have previously stated, the NHLPA's competition committee members are finalizing their response to the NHL's proposal regarding blindside hits to the head and will be responding to the league this week," the statement said.