The NHL is moving cautiously to rein in blows to the head.
At a meeting in Toronto, Wednesday, league GMs agreed to empanel a study group of managers to research the phenomenon. The group will report to the league’s General Manager meeting in February in Boca Raton.
Any recommendations would then have to be channeled through the joint player/owner competition committee and approved by the league’s board of governors.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and the Capital’s George McPhee are spearheading the movment to reconsider the impact of checking in the game.
Headshots have emerged as a growing concern for league officials even as the residual damage of concussions becomes clearer every day.
“I do think there’s a sense that when there is a shot to the head to a player who is vulnerable or unsuspecting, there is something that could and perhaps should be addressed,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
The word unsuspecting is a relatively new one to the vocabulary attached to the game. These are hits where the puck is gone or the impact is unnecessarily violent with no apparent purpose but to injure or intimidate.
Managers had plenty of tape to study Tuesday including replays of the devastating hit Chris Neal put on Tampa’s Victor Hedman and the hit by the Flyers Mike Richards on Florida’s David Booth that came after Booth had passed the puck to a teammate.
More difficult to assess was Mattias Ohlund’s head-high takeout of Phil Kessel
in the Leaf forward’s first game back in the lineup after a sixth-month injury layoff.
In a league that tacitly encourages fighting by allowing both combatants to sit out five minutes with no real loss to their teams, the issue of what constitutes is a thorny one.
In the past, any hit that was delivered from behind, against the boards or ridiculously late, was fair game. When Scott Stevens famously devastated Eric Lindros in 2000, he unwittingly added to a mountain of hits that would eventually leave Lindros a shadow of the player he had been.
Now there is a dawning recognition that even a legal hit that separates a player from his senses isn’t necessary. That said, managers know bodychecking, like fighting is devoured by fans and featured prominently on night-time highlight shows.
It is also a tactic. After hitting Lindros with a clean check that nauseated many who watched it, Stevens said he did it because Lindros was the Flyers best player and he wanted to use any legal means necessary to limit his effectiveness.
“The hitting in the game is great but every once in a while you have to say ‘that hit may be legal but is there something wrong with it,’” McPhee said.
What managers are looking for is the perfect compromise.
“What makes the game great is there are different ways to eliminate a player from a play,” McPHee said.
“You can take the puck from him, you can poke it away, you can ride him out or who can run him over. The only issue I have is when a player is vulnerable and there is a blind side hit and the only contact that is made is with the head.”
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was mindful of any wholesale effort to tame the game.
“I don’t think it’s worth getting into that discussion at this point. I just think if we can take one step at a time, like what is being suggested, that’s a positive. Maybe at some point of time after we take one step we’ll take another one.”
Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, the man in charge of league discipline, agreed the velocity involved in hockey collisions was on the upswing and pointed to a variety of possible causes from the league’s prohibitions on hooking and holding to the gargantuan size of NHL players such as six-foot eight Minnesota forward Derek Boogard and Buffalo’s six-foot-eight Tyler Myers.