NEW YORK – The NHL is targeting hits to the head again, broadening the landmark ban that is only one year old.
After outlawing only shots to the head that came from the blindside, the NHL board of governors approved a pair of rule changes on Tuesday that Commissioner Gary Bettman hopes will decrease the number of concussions suffered by players.
Players will now face a minor penalty for any hit that involves primary contact to the head and shots that target an opponent's head and make it the principal point of contact. The original wording to Rule 48 applied only to hits that came from the lateral or blindside. Those words have been eliminated.
This ban, effective immediately, applied to hits anywhere on the ice and from any direction.
"I do think the NHL has been well ahead of it than everyone else," said Brendan Shanahan, the league's vice president in charge of player safety. "We took the step to put in Rule 48 this year. As the season was going along, we felt that the players were responding well to it and that the game could handle going another step further."
With hockey concussions on the rise and the pressure to eliminate all hits to the head, the NHL took the latest step in its process that began in 1997 with baseline testing of players.
While addressing the problem to some extent, the league is still not willing to eliminate all head hits — a standard that exists in international hockey. Whether a minor penalty or major penalty or no penalty is assessed for these infractions, players could still be subject to suspensions.
Shanahan said some are in favor of lengthy suspensions, but added that punishments in the range of two to six games could also be effective.
"We've got to eliminate the dangerous hits without taking hitting out," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. "It's a very slippery slope. I know people say, 'Why don't they just give 50 games every time there is one of these?' Well, if we do that we're going to get to a game where there is no hitting. If people want to watch that, they can just go to Europe.
"There is an appetite for longer suspensions. I think we need to raise the bar for those type of hits without getting crazy."
The board also gave the OK to changes to Rule 41, which deals with boarding. A penalty will now be given to a player who delivers a hit on a defenseless player that causes him to hit the boards violently or dangerously. Players must try to avoid — or limit — contact against an opponent who is deemed to be in a defenseless position.
"It doesn't take a violent hit to cause a violent crash," Shanahan said.
However, referees, have discretion to determine if the player who is hit put himself in a vulnerable position — thus making the contact unavoidable.
These changes were approved by the league's general managers and the competition committee before being sent to the board for ratification.
"We were the first sports league to have a working study group on concussions that involved physicians, trainers, the players' association and the league," Bettman said. "We were the first sports league to do baseline testing, we were the first sports league to have protocols for the diagnosis and return-to-play decisions. We've been amending our rules to deal with hits to the head. Our record on this has been at a point where we've been out front on the issue.
"We're doing the most that we can to protect players."
Concussions and head shots have long been a problem for the NHL, but the spotlight shined brighter on the league after star player Sidney Crosby was lost to a season-ending concussion in January.
That came on the heels of concussions to Boston's Marc Savard and Florida's David Booth that sparked the move to create Rule 48. High-profile hits by Boston's Zdeno Chara, that sent Montreal's Max Pacioretty into a stanchion, and one by Vancouver's Aaron Rome on Bruins forward Nathan Horton in the Stanley Cup finals would not be subject to penalty under Rule 48.
"We have to protect the game and the players," St. Louis president John Davidson said. "They are very intense people. They care about winning and they care about playing hard. Sometimes the line gets crossed and we have to as a league that we take care of that.
"I want to see as we move forward with this that we really get firm and tough and make sure the suspensions are firm and tough. We have to stop this. We have to think of these players as players, we have to think of them as fathers, and think about them as people who are going to retire and have a life to live."