BOSTON – The NHL's general managers agreed Wednesday with a recommendation to broaden the league's definition of illegal hits to the head, likely expanding the scope of a rule enacted last year to outlaw blindside head shots.
Hockey's inherent violence claimed the sport's spotlight again this week during the Stanley Cup finals. Boston forward Nathan Horton was knocked out for the series in Game 3 on Monday with a severe concussion after a late hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome.
A panel of former players, including Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake, has been investigating new ways to protect defenseless skaters from head hits since March. The panel and the GMs agreed the word "blindside" should be taken out of Rule 48, expanding the rule to allow referees to issue bigger penalties on more instances of contact with an opponent's head.
"Last year, Rule 48 was a very good step," said Shanahan, who will become the NHL's chief disciplinarian next season. "Good rules evolve. We felt we could do a little more, go a little further. We'll see if the NHLPA and the competition committee agrees with us."
The GMs met in a downtown Boston hotel before Game 4 of the finals. While they believe more can be done to protect vulnerable players from dangerous hits, most executives firmly believe the NHL will never outlaw all contact to the head.
"The tightrope we walk is, this is a full-contact sport," said Toronto GM Brian Burke, a former NHL disciplinarian. "It has been since we opened the doors for business. We cannot lose that part of the fabric of our game. What we've got to do is eliminate the most dangerous parts. ... If you go to that rule (eliminating all head contact), you're going to take hitting right out of the game."
The panel's recommendation will be taken to the league's competition committee, which meets Monday, and the NHL Players' Association for consideration and advice. The league's board of governors would have to approve any formal rule change before next season.
The International Ice Hockey Federation, the junior Ontario Hockey League and every European pro league have outlawed all head hits. The NHL has been unwilling to consider such a ban, partly because it would punish players who landed legal hits while making accidental contact with the head of a player who moved or ducked at the last second.
"The game is fast, it's big and it's strong," Ottawa GM Bryan Murray said. "There's a lot of rules in place to open the game up and make it more exciting ... but there's some dangers because of that. We all want hitting in the game, and there will be contact to the head, and it won't be illegal all the time."
Shanahan agreed, echoing NHL disciplinarian Mike Murphy's statements about Rome's Game 3 late hit earlier this week.
Although Rome made contact with Horton's head while delivering a shoulder hit to Horton's chest, Rome was suspended for four games because of the hit's lateness and Horton's serious injury. His contact to Horton's head isn't illegal under Rule 48.
Shanahan declined to discuss whether Rome's contact with Horton's head would have been punished under the new rule, although he felt Rome's hit wasn't "a targeted shot to the head."
"We felt there were too many clean, hard hits that had incidental contact to the head," Shanahan said. "It's the nature of hockey, where you attack bent over, or you turn at the last second. If you want to have bodychecking in hockey, there's going to be incidental contact to the head. It's not just going to be a blanket rule, but at the same time, it's more than we have now."
Concussion safety and head shots have been on NHL rulemakers' minds for several years, but the movement gained new urgency this season when Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Boston's high-scoring Marc Savard also is out for the season with a concussion, joining several players who have incurred serious head injuries in recent years.
"There's a real intent that we want to keep pushing the rules, broadening the language," Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini said. "We don't want to change the nature of the game, but we want to protect players in a bad situation."