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Bettman on rule's effect on play, injury prevention

by Bob Condor
When the shoulder of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke hit Boston Bruins star Marc Savard's head just inside his team's blue line during a Sunday afternoon game March 7, the blind-side, back-pressure play provided plenty of fuel for debate at the NHL General Managers Meetings during the subsequent three days in Boca Raton, Fla. Savard was diagnosed with a Grade II concussion and hasn't played since.

The question then -- should Cooke be suspended? -- was first answered when Cooke was not disciplined and played in the Penguins' next game. The decision by the NHL's Hockey Operations group was based on the lack of any relevant rule about shoulder hits to the head in the League rulebook.

"I was very unhappy and upset with that hit," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday during the "Leafs Lunch" radio program on AM640 in Toronto. "I was more upset there was nothing [in the League's rules] to do to punish it."

On Wednesday, the NHL announced that it has passed a new rule about targeted hits to the head that provided a second answer to the Cooke question, though it won't affect his current playing status. Under the new rule, the Cooke hit on Savard would have been subject to supplemental discipline.

Starting with Thursday's slate of 11 games, the new rule calls for potential supplemental discipline for any such "lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact" for the remainder of the 2009-10 regular season and the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bettman said the rule, which passed unanimously by the Board of Governors earlier in the week and was endorsed by the NHL Players Association's Competition Committee of five players Thursday morning, closes the loophole for shoulder hits to the head but without any unwanted effect on games.

The new rule allows review for supplemental discipline "so it can be carefully monitored and enforced" but without calling any on-ice penalties. Any possible penalty calls on such hits will be discussed by the League and Players Association this summer.

"A minor or major can’t be managed properly right now," explained Bettman. "We don't want to change the outcome of a game or the playoffs [with on-ice penalties, while still protecting players].

"It is a clear statement to players, teams and fans that we don't want these hits in the game. This rule will help prevent concussions."

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