BOCA RATON, Fla. -- To a man, the NHL's general managers insisted that their action was nothing more than a measured response to the evolution of a sport that has become faster, more physical and, as a result, more dangerous than ever.
They argued that it would not alter their game in any discernable way.
|Marc Savard could miss the rest of the season after a head hit from Matt Cooke. (Getty Images)|
Yet when all was said and done, the NHL's GMs managed to accomplish something that has been all but impossible for them in the past dozen years or so when it came to dealing one of the game's most serious problems. And quite amazingly, they did it with unanimity by recommending that targeted hits to the head be outlawed and punishable for the first time with penalties and supplemental discipline if necessary.
Then they wondered what all the fuss was about.
"This is not as big a change as maybe we're making it out to be," said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello after he and his league colleagues finished their three-day winter meetings this week. "We're adjusting to the realities of our game today."
Realities that told them more than 200 concussions have been suffered by NHL players within the past four seasons, in large part because games produce an average of 22 plays involving contact to the head, with about 30 percent coming from shoulders.
Realities that said there was a practical way to reduce that danger without having an impact on the physical nature of the game that everyone wants to maintain.
Realities that made it clear their most valuable assets were at greater short-term risk than ever and in danger of the kind of long-term repercussions other leagues like the NFL are starting to come to grips with. For its part, the NHL is doing the same, if only because its decision makers have been forced to re-evaluate a core belief that players should bear the burden of protecting themselves. These days, they have come to realize that it is not always possible.
"We are shifting some of the responsibility from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit now, which was never a part of our game," said NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell. "Since you grew up, you were always told you had to have your head up -- you'd get crap from your dad if you got hit while watching your pass.
"Now the onus is changing. When a player is in a certain position and you are coming from a certain angle, you have a responsibility that you have to play the body, not the head. That's a huge statement."
It's a statement the NHL had to make in light of a couple of disturbing head shots this season, one just a day before the GMs met to deal with this hot-button issue. Only hours after the general managers announced their recommendation, Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke escaped punishment for the blind-side hit to the head that left Boston's Marc Savard out indefinitely with a concussion. But that was only because there was no precedent set when Philadelphia's Mike Richards knocked Florida's David Booth out for 45 games with a shoulder to the head in October.
Both hits were considered legal under current rules, but they led to the recommendation that will be taken to the competition committee this summer and, if supported as expected, sent to the board of governors for approval.
"The Booth hit got our attention," said Toronto GM Brian Burke. "It's legal, but we don't want that in our league. Players should never be exposed to a hit they can neither anticipate nor avoid."
Blame it on the law of unintended consequences. When the NHL came back from the lockout in 2006, it introduced several new rules that included eliminating the red line and various obstruction techniques used to hold up oncoming players. Aside from speeding up a game that has bigger and stronger players than in previous eras, those rule changes have encouraged more hitting in more zones on the ice.
"Players adjust to things we do, and we have to adjust to things they do," Capitals GM George McPhee said. "If you really look at our game in last 15 years, players were always told pick up the late man, the guy without the puck, then it changed to back pressure and players were going after the guy with the puck.
"So coaches said come back through the middle, but then we changed obstruction and holding rules and when you can't hold someone or slow them down, the only option to play the body, and we're getting a lot of hits. We just don't want them targeting the head."
At least not if the victim doesn't see it coming. A shoulder that ends up driving up into the head of an oncoming player -- think of the hits Hall of Famer Scott Stevens delivered on Eric Lindros or Paul Kariya -- will still be acceptable if the player is facing the hitter, because, well, that's hockey.
"We're not trying to re-invent the wheel here," said Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk. "We just want to do what's best for the game and our players."