Since Brendan Shanahan came on as the NHL's new head of player safety, there has been a particular rule under his jurisdiction that has been the focus of many a debate. That would be the infamous Rule 48.1 which deals with hits to the head.
It's under this rule that it seems like the vast majority of suspensions come from, the NHL trying very hard to take dangerous hits out of the game in the name of player safety, a move spurred on by concussion issues across the league.
While everybody agrees with the rule's intent in theory, it's been a lot more difficult to take into practice. Part of the reason for that was always the wording of the rule. Here's how Rule 48.1 has read for the past few seasons.
A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
The biggest problem with this rule as written was the use of the word "targeted," it left too much room for interpretation. All of a sudden you get down to an issue of intent and it's always a dangerous game to play when trying to assume a player's intent.
Now according to Elliotte Friedman of the CBC, that little issue has been resolved. When the new rule book is released for this upcoming season it will feature an addendum to 48.1.
This is not considered an official rule change, which involves a lengthier process. Instead, the language was altered for greater clarity. Now Rule 48.1 declares an illegal check to the head as "a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable."
You're going to ask the obvious follow-up. How do you determine if the hit is avoidable? There are three circumstances to be considered:
First, whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent's body and the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.
Second, whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.
Third, whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.
The difference between "avoidable" and "targeted" is rather tremendous. Now intent plays no role in the decision-making process at all, it's simply about the result. If it could have been avoided and wasn't then you're subject to discipline.
While perhaps it will be frustrating to players who really were caught in a bad situation and just didn't react properly, it removes the ambiguity of trying to determine what the hitter actually wanted to do.
This rule is going to remain one that people fight about, it deals with awfully big consequences in the form of suspensions. But it's also in the league's best interest to continue to try and tweak the language until the rule is clear and decisions are easily defendable. It's a very worthwhile endeavor for the league as the eradication of head shots is a priority.