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NHL GMs to study head shots rule change

by Bob Condor

"When an item keeps coming back to the agenda, it shows we need to make an adjustment [to how head shots are regulated on the ice]. I think everyone agrees more needs to be done."
-- Canadiens GM Bob Gainey

TORONTO -- Another NHL General Managers Meeting and another lively discussion about hits to heads, which is precisely Canadiens GM Bob Gainey's point. It appears to be time the League's GMs do something more than debate and instead deliver a proposed rules change at the upcoming General Managers Meeting in March.

"When an item keeps coming back to the agenda, it shows we need to make an adjustment [to how head shots are regulated on the ice]", said Gainey after Wednesday's four-hour, morning session to wrap two days of meetings here. "I think everyone agrees more needs to be done."

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford took it a step further. He told a media scrum he is confident that after the upcoming meeting in March, GMs will present a formal rule change recommendation  regarding hits to the head for the 2010-2011 season. He wasn't ready to identify how much of a change, but he strongly suggested players who are blindsided or not able to anticipate a check will be better protected by the proposed new rule.

Ruther said he was encouraged that several GMs who previously held that any head shots rule adjustment would compromise the level of hitting vital to the sport "changed their positions a bit." He specifically mentioned Toronto GM Brian Burke "taking the lead in the discussion" and Washington GM George McPhee as "really good on the topic."

NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell explained after the morning session that a breakout group of general managers and League hockey operations staff would be formed to study the issue at the March meeting. While still following the usual style of breakout groups on the first day of the spring meeting, what's different is this particular head shots study group will be selected months before the meeting and "be provided information for study," said Campbell. He explained the group would decide how to prepare for the meeting, but that, as usual, it will be expected to make a specific recommendation on the second day of the GM gathering in March.

Burke explained his perspective in part after the meeting: "Hockey is a rough sport and it is never going to be a safe workplace … But when a player can't avoid a hit or be prepared for a hit, then you have to deliver your hit somewhere other than the head."

Gainey said the breakout group's work will be "a chance to take the varnish off past prejudices" regarding blows to the head. Gainey said he didn't envy the task ahead since "it's an issue that can be looked at different ways." He cited a statistic presented at the meeting that teams lost 750 "man games" to concussion last season in the NHL.

"That's one statistic," said Gainey, "then you hear the total number of man games is something like 40,000 for the season. It changes how you look at the number."

Gainey, of course, played the sport at the highest level as a Hall of Fame forward with Montreal. He said he "accepts that blows to the head present problems of safety and durability for players, but can you separate blows to the head and the amount of body contact that is part of the sport?"

McPhee addressed that question in his own post-session comments.

"I think we all really like where the game is -- the speed, the
intensity, the skill," said McPhee. "But there are some hits we should probably take a look at to protect the players more. We had sort of a cursory discussion about it today. In March we'll have a real good discussion to see if there is anything we can tweak to protect the players.

"We all like the hitting in the game. What makes the game great is there are different ways to eliminate a player from the play. You can take the puck away with a pokecheck, you can ride him out or you can run him over. There're different reasons to hit. The issue I have is when a player is vulnerable and there is sort of a blind-side hit and the only contact that is made with that player is his head. Probably if there is three or four of them a year that we can attack, it may eliminate a lot of them." Managing Editor Shawn Roarke contributed to this report.
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