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Limiting head shots high on the agenda

by Shawn P. Roarke
NAPLES, FLA. -- Player safety was at the forefront of the agenda of the 2009 General Managers' Meetings here at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort.

And while the debate about fighting's place in the game attracted the majority of the headlines going into the three-day summit of the 30 managers, NHL Players' Association Executive Director Paul Kelly made sure the subject of head shots shared top billing on the agenda.

Kelly spoke shortly after Monday's meeting began and told the group that head shots -- not fighting -- was the most pressing issue facing his constituency.

"I would say better than three-quarters of the players say that we need to have a new rule on hits to the head," Kelly said after his hour-long meeting with the GMs, a talk where he broached a number of issues, including fighting, Olympic participation, the World Cup of Hockey and All-Star participation.

But it was clear Kelly wanted to talk most loudly and most often about blows to the head. And it was also clear that he found a very receptive audience in the general managers, who already had the subject on the week's agenda.

Buffalo's Darcy Regier, in fact, was part of the smaller committee that addressed hits to the head during a workshop after the general assembly. He said his group has another day to work on the matter, but progress was being made.

"We're going to discuss it again tomorrow," Regier told "I'd probably reserve judgment until after that; but I do feel strongly that deliberate hits to the head are an issue in our game that needs to be addressed and it's not necessarily an easy thing to address. You have to define exactly what we're looking to take out of the game, and then it's the implementation of it.

"There are all sorts of different issues, maybe the biggest one the difference in size of players. Having said that, when I'm watching games I think I know when I see a deliberate hit to the head and I really feel strongly there is not a place in the game for that."

Kelly believes he dealt with all the ambiguity in his proposal to the GMs on Monday to change the rulebook regarding hits to the head.

"It's to impose a rule that is similar to the hits-from-behind rule, which says that you define hits to the head as a blow to an unsuspecting player, a player that is in a vulnerable position, and (that) the attacking player has to intentionally or recklessly target the head of that player and make contact with any part of (that attacking player's) body -- whether it is an elbow, a hand, a shoulder.

"You give the officials a menu of choices. It's a minor if there is really no injury. It can be a major if there is an injury or if it's a particularly violent hit. Or if there is an intent to injure, it is a match penalty.

"Right now, you can blindside a guy -- you can see a player coming through the center of the neutral zone looking away to catch or receive a pass and you can drop your shoulder right into his head and it's a perfectly legal and appropriate hit. We don't think that is correct. We think that is a serious safety issue."

No one is debating the safety of the players comes first, but there appears to be significant -- and healthy -- debate around how best to protect the well-being of the players. Even Kelly is hesitant to put a ban on all head hits, understanding that contact to the head is sometimes inadvertent or without malice.

NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell has been at the center of this debate for several years now. He knows the League is doing its best to be proactive in the fight against predatory head shots, pointing at harsh suspensions given to Brendan Witt of the Islanders and Denis Gauthier of the Kings for recent head shots.

"We've beat the heck out of (head shots) and we'll do it again," Campbell said Monday. "Several managers have asked us to talk about it. I think our managers have just as good a handle on what the players are thinking as the Players' Association does. They deal with their 23 players every day, take care of them, and they don't like players to be out with injuries from concussions. So we'll discuss it. We had our own head-hit topic on the table. We address it every year."

While there are no easy answers, Ottawa's Bryan Murray distills the argument to this: "If it's a play where (a player) sees me coming and I hit him, that's fine. If I come blindside to him and hit him with the shoulder or the elbow, then it's different."

But it is not that easy, as many people pointed out in Monday's post-meeting discussions.
Campbell, for one, fears that an over-arching head-hit rule will put a chill on the physical play that defines hockey's character for many.

"The one they are talking about that I think is a real slippery slope is when you are asking the referee to call a shoulder hit that hits the face," Campbell says. "You're taking a vital aspect of the game out, in my own personal belief."

Campbell and Brian Burke, the GM for the Toronto Maple Leafs, also believe a proposal resembling the one Kelly put forward would absolve players of the personal responsibility to protect oneself on the ice.

"I believe there is a responsibility by the player getting hit by a legal check that he has to have his head up and avoid it," Campbell said. "In my day, if you got hit that way, legally by a player , your teammates would wonder what was going on, your coach would look at you and maybe not say anything, but your dad for sure when you got home would give you crap for having your head down."

"I'm certainly concerned about player safety, but I'm more concerned about taking a play out of the game that is a good, physical part of the game."

As Regier said, there will be more discussion on this topic before the meeting break-up Wednesday afternoon. By then, there should be crystallization on exactly where the GMs will fall on this issue.

"I do feel strongly that deliberate hits to the head are an issue in our game that needs to be addressed and it's not necessarily an easy thing to address. You have to define exactly what we're looking to take out of the game and then it's the implementation of it." -- Sabres GM Darcy Regier
"It's a question of how you police them, how you monitor them and what the consequences are of that behavior," Vancouver GM Mike Gillis toild "I think the League has shown recently a propensity of stepping up and penalizing a player pretty severely in the event that there is a clear head shot. Everyone agrees that is something that has to be monitored, looked at and, if adjustments are necessary, to make them."

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