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Talk of penalizing head shots picks up momentum

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins falls to ice against the Washington Capitals during the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on January 1, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Brian Babineau/Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

There are few genuine coincidences in life.

So when people as disparate as National Hockey League general managers, super-agents and organized labour types spontaneously begin using identical analogies to frame an issue, it's fair to say something is afoot.

The analogy: The NHL penalizes even accidental high-sticking, so why couldn't it sanction blows to the head in a similar way?

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero used precisely those terms in arguing for more urgent action against head shots in an interview this week, as did player agent Pat Brisson, who represents injured Pens superstar Sidney Crosby.

Speaking privately, people familiar with the goings-on at the National Hockey League Players' Association - one of whom raised the high-stick comparison - suggested it's probably just a matter of time before the NHL adopts some version of a rule like those already in place in the Ontario Hockey League and elsewhere forbidding checks to the head.

Even if such a rule isn't in the NHL's immediate plans, the discussion about the need to do more to curb head shots is taking place among hockey people - Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and St. Louis Blues president John Davidson have also spoken out - spurred by the recent concussion suffered by Crosby.

Rutherford said he plans to raise the head shot question again at the general managers' meeting in March, and that while "rule 48 is working, can we make it better is the question?"

And while he too stopped short of supporting an outright ban on checks to the head, Rutherford brushed aside the main criticism of that type of rule.

"[Detractors]say it's going to take hitting out of the game. But in my opinion, any time we put in a rule for the players, they always adapt to it," he said. "Whatever we decide to do, the players are going to adjust to it. But at the end of the day, the object is to protect the player and the most important part of their body, the head."

The Hurricanes GM, a longtime advocate for more decisive action on head shots, said "we took a good step last year, but this is a serious issue . . . we don't want players like the best player in the world out of the game because of this injury - or any other player."

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Shero is willing to ask the question as to whether a head-checking ban is appropriate, even if he stopped short of answering in the affirmative ("I'm not saying that's the way to go yet.")

Still, he said, "there's an awful lot of players who come to the NHL, whether it's from the OHL, U.S. college or International Ice Hockey Federation countries … where they've played under those rules."

It's possible for players to change their game to fit new rules, Shero continued, citing the fallout from two cases from last season that made him uncomfortable: the hits by Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards on Florida's David Booth, and by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke on Boston's Marc Savard.

The NHL adopted its blindside hit rule not long after the latter incident, and Shero said it's had an effect.

"I told Matt [Cooke]that I didn't like the [Savard]hit, and I told him he'll have to change his mentality … especially in back-pressure situations in the neutral zone. And he has," Shero said, later adding "we see the Flyers a lot, and I have a lot of respect for Mike Richards as a player, and if you watch you can see he's changed how he plays in the neutral zone … players will adapt."

But at the same time, he continued, the current rule doesn't address other kinds of checks, citing the November check by New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal on Calgary centre Matt Stajan as an example of legal hits he feels have no place in the NHL.

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"I really believe we need to do more to get head shots out of our game," he said.

Brisson, a former player who is broadly considered the most influential agent in hockey, said this week that he favours an unambiguous, unforgiving rule where "even if someone hits someone accidentally, he could be automatically suspended."

The Ontario Hockey League's rule 44B.1 is simply worded, and bans "the act of checking an opponent to the head in any manner." The league's rulebook further specifies that "a hit to the head with a shoulder shall be considered an illegal check and shall be penalized as checking to the head."

Whether the penalty assessed is a minor, a major or a match penalty is left up to the referees.

The rule, which was adopted four years ago, hasn't eliminated concussions in the OHL, nor has it done away with head shots altogether; last week the Kitchener Rangers' Cody Sol was suspended for three games for a head check on an Erie Otters player.

But as OHL commissioner Dave Branch has long argued, nor have the critics' darkest predictions come true: that the regulation would undermine the physical aspect of the game.

Still, several NHL players surveyed informally in recent days remain skeptical; it's reasonable to surmise the rough consensus among players is there is no consensus.

Many appear leery of what they see as a sea change and invoke a "slippery slope" argument, pointing out the difficulties in, for example, 6-foot-9 Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara hitting Buffalo's 5-foot-6 Nathan Gerbe without touching his head.

"How do you police it? There's contact with the head all the time, every game," said a member of the Montreal Canadiens, who, like colleagues interviewed on other teams, didn't wish to have his name used. "It's a contact sport."

With a report from Eric Duhatschek

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More


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