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Stars offer opinions on new head-shots rule

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It is a scene no one ever likes to see, and it’s happened too many times in the NHL this season, most notably with Florida’s David Booth and Boston’s Marc Savard getting laid out by questionable hits that directly targeted their heads. After lying on the ice without moving for an alarming amount of time, each of those players were carted off the ice on stretchers and ended up missing a large chunk of the season while recovering from concussions.

Luckily, that didn’t happen to any Dallas Stars this year, but many of them had opinions on those type of hits, which were recently outlawed by the NHL. In a highly unusual step, the league implemented a new rule during the season, which prohibits “a lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact.”

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Under the new rule, the NHL Hockey Operations department, which distributed a seven-minute video detailing examples of what is legal and illegal, is now empowered to review any such hit for a possible suspension. There is no provision for an on-ice penalty to be called by the referee.

Most Stars players, including their hard-nosed physical guys, were generally in favor of the new guidelines.

“With the head shot rule, it definitely eliminates guys taking liberties on each other and trying to hurt each other,” noted abrasive forward Steve Ott, who compiled 153 penalty minutes this year to lead the club and finish 14th overall in the league. “For myself and I’m sure a lot of guys around the league, they don’t want to see anybody get hurt.  It’s not fun for their families to watch or the fans to watch. In general, it’s good to have a hard rule like that.”

“We just got to have respect for each other,” added second-year winger James Neal, who was suspended for two games back in November for a hit from behind on Columbus’ Derek Dorsett. “We still got to keep the game physical, fast-paced - it’s not going to take anything away from it. Nobody wants a head injury and the way things have been going, there’s been guys going down with concussions. You’ve just got to watch yourself, don’t put yourself in vulnerable positions to get hit like that, and keep yourself protected. I think it’s for the betterment of the game and I’m sure guys will respect the rule.” 

All Stars were unanimous in the thought that they didn’t want the rule to discourage big hits or take the physicality out of the game.

“Initially, when they first started talking about it, I was somewhat concerned, I still think that hitting needs to be a big part of the game,” gritty center Brian Sutherby said. “But I think they did a good job of it - those hits that are from the side, where you’ve got guys coming up or targeting the head, there’s no need for those in the game. Obviously, there’s going to be times when it’s incidental, but my biggest fear was taking that big hit out of the middle. 

“If a guy’s skating with his head down and unfortunately gets knocked out - there still has to be some onus on the puck-carrier. You’ve been taught your whole life to not skate through the neutral zone with your head down. I’m glad those hits are still in the game, you still have to be aware out there, but those ones where guys are targeting the head or ones from the side where you’re blind-siding guys, I think it’s good.”

There is also the thought that when many big hits occur, the player getting hit has to bear his share of responsibility for not putting himself in a dangerous position.

“I think one of the problems now is that guys turn their back to the play and they’re not looking, and that’s when they get in trouble,” said defenseman Stephane Robidas, who picked up a five-minute major and a game misconduct back on March 16 for a  hit from behind. “You got to be responsible a bit, but there’s those blind-side hits, and that’s where it’s important, when you don’t see the guy coming. Obviously, you want to get rid of the guys jumping or elbows in the face or something like that, that’s good. I think the only problem I have is when guys turn their back, while you’ve got the momentum to hit them - he knows that you’re coming and he doesn’t want to take the check, so he turns his back. That’s where I got in a little bit of a problem.”

“I think they’re trying to eliminate those back-side pressure hits where you target the head,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford, who has been coaching since the mid-‘90s and also played for the Vancouver Canucks from 1981-89. “I thought they did maybe even a better job of explaining what they want to keep in the game, which is the hard hits that come from the front. It’s long been the case that people coming through the neutral zone, you’ve got to be aware of what’s coming. That’s something you learn from a very young age, at least my generation, you always learned to keep your head up going through the neutral zone, because that’s where people did lower the boom on you. I think everyone wants to see less concussions, less hits where people are vulnerable, but it is an awful lot of responsibility on the puck-carrier.”  

As for the apparent knee-jerk reaction of the league to recommend the change in mid-season, less than three weeks after Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke ended Savard’s season on March 7 and received no penalty or suspension, no one seemed to have a problem with it. The NHL’s competition committee, which consists of several players, a few league GM’s, and an owner, drew up the language for the rule, then cleared it with the NHL Player’s Association and the league Board of Governors.

“I think it needs to be adapted into the game, the speed and the style that the league has gone, once you see a problem, you’ve got to fix it right away,” said Ott, the team’s former union representative. “I like the approach, because once the grand scale of playoffs comes along, if something like that were to happen, it’s another black eye on our sport, which we don’t need.”

Current PA rep Krys Barch also pointed out that it is somewhat of an understated response by the league, because the rule isn’t all that harsh - remember, it doesn’t allow for the referees to call penalties on the ice at the time of the infraction - and after all, the rule is only temporary, to cover the rest of 2009-10 until it is reviewed again in the off-season.

“I think there’s a lot of media pressure from what’s gone on in the past year, maybe you have something in there that kind of safeguards guys, and also maybe the league itself, for the rest of the year, until we re-address it in the summer,” said Barch, who missed the final eight games of the season with a lacerated calf. “It’s not something that’s set in stone. It’s going to be re-addressed in the summertime and kind of picked through with a fine-tipped comb, to see how far you bring it. It’s kind of a safety net for the remainder of the year and playoffs, and it’s something that can’t be called on the ice, something that is taken care of after by the league. I think the rule itself, in terms of being called on-ice by the officials or even the literature of what it will say in the rule book, will be re-addressed in the summertime.” 

“I think it’s good that there’s no discipline during the game,” Sutherby said. “It’s maybe one of those things that maybe will take some time for guys to get used to, and hopefully guys just respect each other and realize when a guy’s in a bad spot like that. I think it’s good for now.” 

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