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The Globe and Mail

In the year of the concussion, a stern penalty for Game 3 hit

Elsa/2011 Getty Images

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


BOSTON -- The National Hockey League's decision to suspend Vancouver defenceman Aaron Rome from the balance of the Stanley Cup final signals a sterner approach to disciplining players for hits to the head of opponents.

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With a maximum of four games remaining in the final, Mr. Rome received the longest suspension in Stanley Cup finals history, four games for a late hit on unsuspecting Boston Bruins' forward Nathan Horton in the first period of Monday's 8-1 Boston victory. Mr. Horton spent the night at Massachusetts General Hospital with a concussion, and while released on Tuesday, he won't play again this season.

NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy said the suspension was made in accordance with an unspecified formula for determining late hits, and also due to "the seriousness of the injury to Nathan on the ice."

The optics of the hit were indeed ugly for a league criticized heavily this season for its failure to take effective action on concussion-causing hits.

NHL superstar Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was concussed in early January by hits in consecutive games delivered by Washington Capitals forward David Steckel and Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman. He did not return to play this season, possibly costing Pittsburgh a chance to play in the final.

Asked Tuesday whether his verdict signals that the league is becoming more stern about punishing head hits, Mr. Murphy said, "Without question, we have. And I think we've ramped it up through the year."

Mr. Murphy said he consulted with a number of people in hockey operations before handing down his decision, but his inclusion of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke in that group raised the ire of Canucks' management. The Canucks previously fired Mr. Burke as general manager, and Mr. Burke's relationship with current team owner Francesco Aquilini is known to be strained.

Mr. Aquilini refused comment on Tuesday, but Canucks coach Alain Vigneault deemed the length of the suspension to be unwarranted.

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"I think Aaron was a tad late [with the hit]" Mr. Vigneault said. "He's not a dirty player. Never has been. Never will be."

Said Mr. Rome: "I try to play this game honestly, and with integrity."

Four years ago, on a similar and arguably even more egregious play, the Anaheim Ducks' Chris Pronger clobbered the Ottawa Senators' Dean McAmmond, and the penalty was only a single-game suspension. But that was then, this is now and, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the league is committed to taking "a fresh look at the [disciplinary]standards that we use."

On Wednesday afternoon, a blue-ribbon committee appointed by Mr. Bettman to examine and broaden the definition of the NHL's Rule 48, which prohibits blindside hits to the head, will report its findings to league general managers. Rule 48 was introduced after Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke gave Bruins forward Marc Savard a concussion in March of 2010, with a blindside hit. Mr. Savard did not see the Pittsburgh player coming, just as Mr. Horton did not see Mr. Rome. Mr. Cooke stayed on his feet to make the hit, as did Mr. Rome. Mr. Cooke was not suspended, the Canucks defenceman was suspended four games - but not under the provisions of Rule 48, as the collision was deemed a "north-south" play.

On a north-south play, a check may be deemed legal because the player would have had the opportunity to see the play unfold by keeping his head up. Rather, Mr. Rome was penalized for interference, as Mr. Horton was not in possession of the puck at the time of the hit. Such subtle differences have confused players and fans alike, and speak to why Rule 48 is likely to be broadened.

Exactly one week ago, on the day the final started, Mr. Bettman took the unprecedented step of unveiling radical changes to the NHL's supplementary discipline process that will be put in place for the start of next year.

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Brendan Shanahan will replace Colin Campbell as the league's chief disciplinarian, as the NHL strives to go harder on crime, especially in the light of a concussion epidemic.

As part of his new duties, Mr. Shanahan will also run a newly minted player-safety department, with a mandate to look at rule and equipment changes designed to make the NHL workplace safer.

Mr. Bettman believes it will be easier to erase oft-confusing precedents with Mr. Shanahan in charge, as he is only two years removed from his playing career.

"If we're going to move to harsher discipline," Mr. Bettman said, "that change needs to send a clear message, and we think it would probably be best to do it on a clean slate."

Mr. Murphy is handling the disciplinary chores in the interim, largely because Gregory Campbell plays for the Bruins, leaving Colin Campbell in a conflict of interest position.

Mr. Murphy said Mr. Rome was both "apologetic and contrite" during the hearing.

"They're two great qualities, because a series ago Aaron Rome was picking himself up off the ice with a concussion from a hit in a San Jose game," Mr. Murphy said. "I have a lot of compassion for what he said, and had a lot of feeling for what he said. I did take it to heart.

"But I don't think it changed my mind a whole lot."

With a report from Matthew Sekeres

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