At their meeting from March 8-10, the NHL General Managers engaged in in-depth discussion and analysis focused on: (i) attempting to reduce head injuries while maintaining the physicality in the game; and (ii) addressing the lateral or "blind-side" hits to the head of an unsuspecting opponent. The consensus was that post-work-stoppage rule changes have resulted in an increase in both the speed of the game and the level of contact. And while the overall number of concussions has not increased, the evolution of the game appears to have resulted in a certain type of contact that potentially is more dangerous than it was previously.
Following these discussions, the General Managers unanimously supported adopting the following playing rule:
"A lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.
"A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."
Historically and currently, a body check that is otherwise "legal" and is delivered by the shoulder of one player and results in contact with the head of another player has not been, and is not, prohibited by NHL playing rules. Nevertheless, as this type of hit has started to occur with greater frequency in the NHL game, often with an injury suffered by the recipient of the hit, there has been increased focus, discussion, and debate within the League (and in the media) as to the appropriateness of such hits. There also has been a growing sentiment that players can, and should, avoid delivering "head-only" hits, as opposed to "cleaner" checks directed to the body of their opponents. At their November, 2009, meeting, the General Managers engaged in extensive discussion on this topic, focusing in particular on the hit delivered by Mike Richards
to David Booth
. The General Managers agreed unanimously that certain types of hits that result in contact primarily to an opponent's head, while not currently illegal, should be the topic of further discussion and focus at the March, 2010, meetings and should be reviewed for a possible rule change. The current attention and "call to action" that the League and the Clubs are devoting to this type of hit is consistent with the approach taken routinely by the League and the Clubs over at least the past 13 years to address the issue of player safety with respect to hits to the head through rule changes, equipment modifications, environmental modifications and player education. Indeed, the General Managers have worked on this issue consistently for the last 10 years at their meetings and numerous adjustments and modifications have been made.
March 2010 General Managers' Recommendation
The March, 2010, General Managers' meeting included:
(i) Presentations on the science of concussions;
(ii) Statistics regarding the circumstances under which concussions are occurring in the game. As an example: The Concussion Working Group indicated that perhaps as many as 50% of concussions involving hits to the head were the result of lateral and posterior hits;
(iii) A report detailing how "head hits" have evolved in the game;
(iv) Video examples of the types of hits at issue, including the Matt Cooke
hit on Marc Savard
that did not run afoul of the current rules.
After considering the facts presented, the General Managers recommended unanimously that lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hits to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact should have no place in the game and should be penalized. The General Managers believe that the elimination of these types of hits should significantly reduce the number of injuries, including concussions, without adversely affecting the level of physicality in the game. They also believe the "north-south" shoulder check, even if it may cause contact primarily with an opponent's head, should not result in a penalty because the puck carrier has a responsibility to be aware of his surroundings and that he is susceptible to contact while in possession of the puck.
Timing for Implementation of Proposed Rule
There was extensive discussion at the General Managers' meeting as to whether implementation of this rule could be pursued for the balance of the regular season and the playoffs, or alternatively, whether the more traditional off-season time frame for approval of a rule, with implementation to take place the following season, should be followed.
On the one hand, there was strong sentiment to pursue immediate implementation of the rule in order to eliminate this type of hit, and importantly, to prevent additional players from suffering injuries this season from hits that will no longer be deemed "legal" in the game.
On the other hand, there was a recognition that the successful implementation of this rule would require: (i) identifying specific criteria for when a hit of this nature will be called as a minor, versus a major, penalty; and (ii) properly educating NHL officials, players, coaches, and General Managers, as well as fans and the media, on the new standard prior to its implementation.
As also was discussed, over the coming weeks Hockey Operations will develop and identify specific criteria for enforcing a minor versus a major penalty for this infraction. Given the current absence of such criteria, however, there was no comfort level with the ability to provide sufficient direction and video examples to the officials (as well as to the players and Club personnel) as to what conduct will be deemed to constitute a minor penalty versus a major penalty, in order to ensure that the rule, if called on the ice, would be enforced in a consistent, predictable, and uniform manner. Accordingly, the determination was made that it would not be feasible to immediately enforce the proposed new rule through the assessment of on-ice penalties during the game at this stage of the season.
There was confidence, however, in the immediate ability of Hockey Operations to consistently and uniformly enforce the proposed rule through the application of supplementary discipline. Accordingly, as an interim solution, it was proposed that the new rule be adopted effective with the games played on Wednesday, March 24, and that for the balance of the 2009/2010 regular season and playoffs, the rule be enforced solely through the possible imposition of supplementary discipline. Beginning with the 2010/2011 season, however, a violation of the proposed new rule would result in the assessment on the ice of a penalty -- in accordance with the criteria that are to be developed by Hockey Operations and the education that will be provided to the on-ice officials -- in addition to review for possible supplemental discipline. This approach would allow for an immediate prohibition on, and penalization through supplementary discipline for, these types of hits, yet would allow sufficient time for the on-ice component of the penalty to be considered, developed, and implemented. At the conclusion of the General Managers' meeting, it was decided that implementation of the proposed rule would be pursued for the start of the 2010/2011 season, based on a recognition of the requirements that would first need to be satisfied before implementation could be accomplished. Following the meeting, however, upon reflection, the League decided to consider whether it would be feasible to expedite the rule on a more expedited basis. The interim solution is being proposed in this context.
To ensure that our players, coaches, and General Managers are properly educated on the new standard, Hockey Operations has developed a video containing examples of hits that now will be considered illegal, and those that will remain legal, under the proposed new rule. As stated above, for the remainder of this season illegal hits would be reviewed pursuant to supplemental discipline only, and would not be subject to the assessment of an on-ice penalty.