Tuesday, June 5, 2007

GM's To Focus On Head Shots At Meetings

From TSN.ca:

OTTAWA (CP) - A minor penalty could be assessed to NHL players who deliver
a hit to the head as soon as next season.

The league's 30 general managers met for several hours Monday and spent
most of the time reviewing tape and talking about the issue, which has picked up
steam after several incidents this season.

The NHL will have to come up with the specific language of the rule before
it passes through the competition committee and is eventually approved by the
board of governors.

The general feeling after the meeting seemed to be that there would be
enough time for all of that to take place over the summer.

"I think some level could be in place by next season," said Edmonton Oilers
GM Kevin Lowe. "I think that there was enough appetite there, enough concern and

Added Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson: "I think there'll be something there."

The issue found it's way into the spotlight during this Stanley Cup after
Anaheim defenceman
Chris Pronger was suspended for Monday's Game 4 for hitting Dean McAmmond with a forearm to the head.

The biggest obstacle to it entering the rule book as an infraction will be
outlining exactly what constitutes a hit to the head.

"There's going to be an attempt to draft some type of rule or enforcement
provision about a hit directly to the head and nothing but the head," said Ducks
GM Brian Burke. "My prediction is that it's going to be hard to draft that.

"Most of the hits we have to the head are also to some other part of the
body so it's going to be hard to do. I think we owe it to our players to try."

The issue has become a hot talking point in the league since Ottawa
Senators forward
Chris Neil levelled Chris Drury of the Buffalo Sabres with a blindsided hit in February. No penalty was called on the play and Neil wasn't suspended. Drury missed four games with a concussion.

Sabres owner Thomas Golisano sent an open letter to NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman shortly after the incident saying that he was "deeply concerned" with
head shots. The Buffalo organization was feeling better Monday after the issue
was discussed at length.

"For me, for our organization, it's a step in the right direction," said
Sabres GM Darcy Regier. The managers were clear about the fact that they
were happy with the amount of contact in the game.

As more than one pointed out, big hits often bring as much attention to
hockey on sports highlight shows as pretty goals.

"There's lots of hitting in the game, everyone wants the hitting to
continue," said Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough. "We want to make sure that
the hitting is done in a tactical way at the body."

The GM's also discussed discussed having bigger nets and instituting
four-on-four overtime during the playoffs, but neither issue was met with much

Risebrough was one of the general managers interested in bigger nets before
the meeting. "It was discussed but I can say there was not a great appetite
to deal with it right now," he said. "I would even put myself in - a guy who was
supportive - is not as supportive.

"I like what we have right now. There's been a lot of changes and sometimes
they don't amount to more goals."

Some GM's were open to the idea of playing overtime games in the playoffs
with four skaters on each team in an effort to avoid games dragging on into the
night. However, not enough were interested to recommend a change to the rules.

Vancouver and Dallas played into a fourth overtime during the first round
of the playoffs before
Henrik Sedin scored to give the Canucks a win in the sixth-longest NHL game ever.

"I don't mind the fact that we played five-on-five for a long period of
time before we finally ended the game," said Canucks GM Dave Nonis. "People
talked about that game for a long time and that's not necessarily a bad

This is an issue the GM's, the players and the owners definitely need to examine and ultimately fix. I know my stance may not be popular with traditionalists (like myself), but I see a problem here in the NHL and I think it needs to be fixed.

I'm all for old-school hockey and big, crunching hits. But it was not too long ago that the league removed hip-checks from the game because too many players were getting hurt. For years, players used hip-checks regularly--but there weren't as many injuries for whatever reason. Who didn't love watching a wicked hip-check delivered on a guy? I loved it. But, throughout the 90's, not every player was executing the move properly--some were accidents, some had some intent to injure--and, as a result, we saw a rise in knee injuries. Million dollar athletes being shelved, some for a season at a time, rehabbing their torn MCL's, ACL's, and every other part of the knee that was damaged.

The NHL recognized the rise of a serious issue and dealt with it. The same thing is happening here.

Head shots are an issue now. And it must be fixed, now.

Elbows to the head, cross checks to the head, headshots--these aren't new to the NHL. But, the injuries occuring from them are becoming more severe. Players are bigger, stronger and the equipment is harder and bigger. Some players are executing head shots accidentally, some are aiming high with intent.

Players aren't stupid. They know that--with their size, the speed of the game and the physicality of the sport--hitting someone in the head can have a very disasterous result. The NHL had the same problem with hits from behind. It was becoming an epidemic, and the NHL acted. They implemented "boarding" calls or hits-from-behind penalties. In pee-wee hockey, kids had stop signs sewn on the backs of their jerseys to teach kids to respect your opponent when his back is turned and to ease up, to lay off the hit from behind.

Hits to the head are becoming an epidemic, the new version of hitting from behind. There appears to be a lack of respect among players creeping into the game and it's evident when a player throws an elbow to the head of another player, or slams a players face into the glass with his forearms.

I'm a big supporter of physical, hard-hitting hockey. But I've seen too many hits to the head this year that have lead to concussions and other injuries--hits that still could have been executed without aiming, purposely or not, for the head.

The NHL has penalties for kneeing, for boarding and I hope they create a penalty for a headshot.

Let's not kid ourselves--hockey is a fast-paced, physical game. Hits to the head will happen whether you legislate them or not. Players have a split second to make a decision and sometimes they make the wrong one, or sometimes it's purely accidental. But, penalizing hits to the head will help decrease the amount of headshots that are happening (it won't make them completely disappear) and it will force players who are doing it on purpose to think otherwise.

From a business standpoint: these are million dollar athletes; they are pieces of property with tremendous value. Owners and GM's don't want to see their investments in doctors offices. They want to see them on the ice, doing what they can to win a championship for the organization. Your investment is no good when they are sidelined with post-concussion syndrome or a broken facial bones.

From a personal standpoint: these athletes are human beings. They are somebody's sons. Some are fathers. Playing professional sports is a risk, especially in a fast paced physical game like hockey. But the NHL owe's it to these people to minimize the risks when possible.

Players are going to keep getting better, bigger, stronger and faster. Now is the time to adress this problem. I'm not saying to legislate hitting out of the game. Creating a minor penalty, or a double minor penalty for a headshot might be a start in the right direction. Repeat offenders would be subjected to harsher punishment (fines and suspensions that elevate after X amount of offenses). As Risebrough stated, "we want to make sure the hitting is done in a tactical way to the body." Penalizing hits to the head will not eliminate hitting or hard, physical play from the game. Hip-checking is no longer part of the game and the game is still as physical.

Headshots are an issue now. They aren't becoming an issue, they ARE the issue. And the NHL needs to come up with a way to regain control of this epidemic, to minimize the chances of this happening as often as it has been.

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