BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The NHL and its 30 general managers believe stricter enforcement of boarding and charging penalties, as well as harsher supplemental discipline for the offenders, are feasible and immediate ways of making the game safer for players.
The GMs have spent two days here discussing player safety, specifically as it relates to reducing the number of concussions. They believe that defining standards for boarding and charging, and putting the onus on the referees and the players to interpret those standards, will create a safer environment, especially along the boards, where a great number of concussions have occurred this season.
More than half of the reported concussions this season (through March 1) have occurred when a legal hit results in secondary impact with the glass or boards.
"Boarding and charging is a focus of attention for us, particularly in terms of seeking stricter enforcement, more aggressive enforcement," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "In that regard we're going to be looking to articulate a standard which is consistent with being stricter and more aggressive in terms of the enforcement, a standard that the officials and the players can be comfortable with, and will take out some of the acts that aren't being called as boarding or charging and making them penalties and perhaps beyond."
According to the NHL Rulebook, the parameters for boarding and charging include a stipulation that, "if deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion." The GMs are in favor of longer suspensions for players who violate the existing rules.
"Sometimes the boards are the weapon, so we've talked about that hit being looked at hard and the call being made, whether it's a two or five (minute penalty)," Ottawa GM Bryan Murray said. "But also, the Hockey Ops (department) will have supplemental discipline to go with that.
"We're trying to protect the players from hurting each other as best we can and we encourage the Hockey Ops people to make them pay a price if that's the case."
The official wording for a boarding penalty in the rulebook states: "A penalty shall be imposed on any player who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently into the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee."
The rule goes on to state: "The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a vulnerable position and if so, he must avoid the contact. However, there is also a responsibility on the player with the puck to avoid placing himself in a dangerous and vulnerable position. The balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule."
On charging, the rulebook states: "A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner. Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A charge may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice."
Outside of a tweak here and there, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman said the general managers feel the wording in the rulebook for boarding and charging is sufficient.
"But it's not so much the wording," Yzerman said. "It's, let's define the standard so everybody -- referees, players, coaches, managers -- understands what is charging and what is boarding."
Rob Blake, who retired after last season and now is a manager in NHL Hockey Operations, said players understand how far they can go without being whistled for a boarding or charging penalty.
"Players will go to that line. Now if that line is the way it's been enforced and you can tighten that up, players will adapt to that," Blake said. "Before, charging might have been five or six steps -- I knew I could take that -- but if the rule says we need that tighter, the good thing with the players is they will adapt. We used to make a living out of hooking and holding, but players have adapted."
"In light of the way the game is now (charging and boarding) have to be focused on, much like when we came out of the lockout and we wanted to address hooking, holding, slashing and cross checking," Yzerman said. "There was a lot of attention focused on it and I think it's safe to say those penalties have been eliminated from the game. Out of that there is a lot more physical play in the game. That was an unexpected outcome or byproduct of it, and now we've got an issue with players getting hurt in particular with hits along the boards. If you define charging and you define boarding, these can be penalties."
The goal is to reduce the number of concussions that result from legal hits (currently 44 percent) without increasing the concussions that stem from illegal hits (currently 17 percent).
By strictly enforcing boarding and charging, the number of concussions from legal hits is bound to go down because those hits would be called illegal. However, the GMs believe the threat of longer suspensions associated with those penalties could reduce the amount of concussions we currently have from illegal hits because we won't see them as often.
The GMs also are planning a recommendation to the Competition Committee and ultimately the Board of Governors that the clubs also be held responsible for their offending players and could be fined for their players' actions.
"Most of the significant injuries we've had this year are from plays along the boards and hits along the boards," said NHL Vice President of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan. "We have to look at the playing environment and we have to educate the players about boarding. I really do believe -- and I think people underestimate this -- when management, owners and coaches have a stake in supplemental discipline, the education process and the messaging will improve."
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