Before next season begins, the National Hockey League wants to crack down on headshots that leave unsuspecting players exposed to serious injury, commissioner Gary Bettman says.
"We want to develop a standard that is clear; that the players know what to expect; that the officials know exactly what to call," Mr. Bettman said in a telephone interview yesterday.
According to Mr. Bettman, an NHL game averages 40 to 42 hits, or roughly 50,000 total in the regular season. He believes egregious headshots amount to about a dozen over the course of an entire season. The challenge, he says, is to develop a standard in order to impose discipline - without fundamentally changing the physical aspect of the game.
"What is an otherwise normal, hard physical check where the shoulder hits the head - is there something we can do about that when a player is vulnerable and unsuspecting?" Mr. Bettman said. "If a player loses the puck on his stick and bends down to look for it, or turns the wrong way at the boards at the last second - what do you do about it?"
The league is currently studying high hits on vulnerable and unsuspecting players, with an aim of making preliminary rule recommendations to general managers at their March meeting in Florida. Those recommendations would be refined at another meeting in June, then moved to the competition committee and board of governors for approval.
"We know this is important," Mr. Bettman said. "We are not taking it lightly. But we are trying to do this in a professional, thoughtful, workmanlike way."
Meanwhile, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said Wednesday that a proposed Open Ice Summit in August would focus on a number of issues related to the player, including safety. Mr. Nicholson is planning to unveil a full summit agenda at the Vancouver 2010 Games, in partnership with the International Ice Hockey Federation.
"Player safety, player skills, player movement … the player is the focus and safety is the major component of that with all level of players," said Mr. Nicholson, who will invite the NHL, the NHL Players Association and the Canadian Hockey League to participate.
The long-term damage caused by concussions is one factor motivating the hockey community. The Globe revealed in December that the Boston University School of Medicine determined former NHL player Reggie Fleming suffered from degenerative brain disease at the time of his death - the consequence of multiple concussions suffered during his 13-year career.
Buffalo Sabres' general manager Darcy Regier began studying the effects of concussions on players in the mid-1990s during his time with the New York Islanders, when the career of Brett Lindros ended after 51 NHL games.
"I really think the issue isn't hits to the head, it's protecting the brain," Mr. Regier said Wednesday. "But I'm not sure how to do that because outside of scoring, I don't know what's more exciting than a big hit."
In an interview with the Globe this week, NHL Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, now a Liberal MP, proposed that the referees automatically declare a headshot as an intent to injure, rather than leave any margin to interpret the check as inadvertent. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, like Mr. Dryden speaking personally rather than as a representative of government, urged the NHL to enact stricter safeguards before civil lawsuits force the league's hand.
Mr. Dryden said the NHL, as the most influential body in the sport, should lead by example. Mr. Flaherty concurred.
While the NHL does not have a rule specifically addressing hits to the head, Mr. Bettman pointed out that the existing rulebook covers off the majority of such hits anyway.
"Hits to the head - where the head is targeted by an elbow or a stick or where you charge or where you leave your feet - we have punished those acts for years," he said. "If you think back to [Marty]McSorley or [Todd]Bertuzzi, those hits were severely punished. In McSorley's case, he never played again. In Bertuzzi's case, he was basically away from playing hockey for a year-and-a-half. So we've always punished that.
"What we're going to do with the managers is to see if we can refine the standard on what would otherwise historically have been a legal hit, but where the head is implicated through a hit on the shoulder."
At last November's quarterly GM meetings in Toronto, some of the league's most hawkish general managers conceded that a change is necessary. A blind but otherwise legal hit to the head by the Philadelphia Flyers' Mike Richards on the Florida Panthers' David Booth earlier this season had kick-started the debate. Mr. Booth has missed the better part of two months convalescing; Mr. Richards received no penalty on the play because his hit wasn't against the rules as written.
Patrice Cormier, the captain of the Team Canada at the world junior tournament earlier this month, was suspended for the rest of the season by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for delivering an ugly elbow to the head of an opponent recently. He also delivered dubious hits at the junior tournament.
"Personally, I thought there could have been some further suspensions at the world juniors," said Mr. Nicholson, speaking generally. "I know they will emphasize in the coaches meetings at the Olympics that they're going to call penalties on hits to the head."
Mr. Bettman defended the NHL's record on dealing with head trauma, noting that the league put a concussion study group in place in 1997 at the All-Star Game in San Jose. "We were the first professional sports league to do baseline testing. We do an educational video. We won an award last year from the association of neuropsychology for all of our work in the field.
"The professionals know we take this seriously."