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GMs: Evidence suggests Rule 48 is limiting head hits

by Dan Rosen
TORONTO -- The League's new rule designed to punish illegal checks to the head from a lateral or blind-side position is working, according to reports from the NHL General Managers' Meeting here.

Tuesday morning, the League's GMs were shown two specific video clips of players who appeared to modify the delivery of a hit to avoid sanctions from Rule 48, which was instituted to curtail lateral or blind-side checks to the head.

In one, St. Louis forward David Backes cleanly hit Artem Anisimov of the New York Rangers in a game this past Sunday. In the other, Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara delivered a similarly clean blow to Phoenix forward Radim Vrbata on Oct. 9.

Those two examples -- as well as others through the first month of the NHL season -- suggest to the League's GMs that Rule 48 is having its desired effect.

"There's no question that the blind-side situation, that players are paying attention to it and they're not taking advantage of a player that has clearly put himself in a vulnerable situation," Atlanta GM Rick Dudley said. "I haven't seen every incident that's happened, but I've seen a couple that we showed today that were very impressive because you could see that a player had another player lined up, that it was clearly going to be a hit to the head, it was clearly going to be a blind-side hit and it was clearly not done. So that's good."

This season, the League has issued suspensions to San Jose's Joe Thornton (two games) and Phoenix's Shane Doan (three games) and fines to Ottawa's Nick Foligno and Edmonton's Tom Gilbert for illegal checks to the head. Each player was fined $2,500, the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings were also issued major penalties and game misconducts for illegal hits, but upon further review those were rescinded because the hits were deemed legal.

Most of the GMs believe the Hockey Operations Department got each of those decisions correct and believe the message has clearly been sent to the players.

"I've seen it in a number of players where they have to think about it before they do it," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said. "You talk to the players when they do get on the ice, they're going to be in a situation where they have to make a split-second decision and you have to ask yourself, 'What are you going to do in that situation?' So I think players have thought about it, but it's a reactionary sport and it's quick. The message is getting through and players are thinking about it and trying to respond to it."

Shero, though, said further discussion on how the rule is being implemented by the on-ice officials is necessary, referencing the hit by Pittsburgh's Letang on Blake Comeau of the New York Islanders on Oct. 15.

"We look at the replay right away and we say that's a shoulder-to-shoulder, but they don't have that luxury on the ice (of replay) and it's a difficult call to make," Shero said.

"Someone made the analogy of when we first came out of the lockout with the new rules, it evolved and guys adjusted. So we'll see through the course of the season how it may go."

One of the chief concerns voiced by the GMs prior to the "Illegal Checks to the Head" rule being approved by the Board of Governors on June 24 was a potential to limit the amount of hitting in the game. The GMs were worried that players would be so spooked about suspensions and fines that they would eschew opportunities to deliver legal body checks.

That has not happened, according to the Hockey Operations Department. By their account, NHL teams are averaging 44 hits per game. That's almost identical to last year, when there were a record number of hits per game.

"I've seen some really good hockey games and when I say that, I'm a guy who appreciates the contact in the game," Dudley said. "I've seen some games this year that were very violent in a good sort of way. As long as we can maintain that, taking some of the (head) shots out is very important."

Nashville GM David Poile told that what's also important on the head-hits topic is how the message is being delivered to the public. He said the communication the GMs are having Tuesday needs to be relayed correctly to the players, the referees, the media, coaches and fans to make sure everybody is on the same page.

"When you do something as drastic as this, there is a learning curve for everybody," Poile said. "The whole purpose of this was to get rid of these blind-side hits, these targeted hits to the head. We just don't want them in our game. Right now I think we have some growing pains and there are players suffering through suspensions because of it. But all in all, I'm hoping for the day when these hits happen, they'll be very few and far between."

The consensus here is that Poile's hopes are closer to becoming reality because of the presence of Rule 48 and the players' willingness to pay close attention to it.

"I'd say right at the moment it's pretty clearly defined," Dudley said. "What is encouraging is as the referees get more used to it, they get more comfortable with it. You really see very few calls that are totally out of whack, so it's good."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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