BOSTON -- With the focus on improving player safety, National Hockey League general managers have decided they want to expand the scope of illegal head hits currently defined under Rule 48.
The GMs and NHL did not reveal the exact recommendation that will be proposed to the Competition Committee -- and presumably the Board of Governors -- later this month, but essentially what they would like to do is take out the terms "lateral and/or blind side" from the current rule and make targeted head hits from any direction illegal.
The recommendation would go to the Competition Committee during a meeting next Monday. If approved, the final step is taking it in front of the Board of Governors, who meet June 21 in New York. The presumed timeline is to have the rule change apply for the 2011-12 season.
"I don't think it's appropriate to discuss the details until we get in front of the other people, namely the NHLPA, to make sure they are comfortable with it, but generally speaking it's taking Rule 48 and expanding it in a fashion that we think will protect players, specifically from illegal checks to the head," said NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan, who starting next season will have the task of doling out supplementary discipline.
"Last year, putting in (Rule 48) was a good first step for the NHL, but we felt we could do more and go a little further," Shanahan said. "We'll see if the NHLPA and the Competition Committee support that. I think they will and if they do we will move forward to the Board of Governors."
The GMs' recommendation is based on the findings of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's blue-ribbon committee of Shanahan, NHL Hockey Operations Manager Rob Blake, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman and Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk tasked in March with examining ways to make the game safer for players, specifically as it pertains to Rule 48.
Shanahan, Blake, Nieuwendyk and Yzerman worked the last three months examining all types of head hits and felt it was best that Rule 48 be broadened -- but not to include a ban on all head hits.
"In the amount of video we studied, we just felt that there were too many clean, hard hits that did have incidental contact with the head," Shanahan said. "The nature of the way hockey is played where you attack bent over, we just didn't think it was fair. We didn't think a blanket rule fit for the NHL."
Blake explained that there is "legal contact in the sport that includes clean, full-body contact" that should not be regulated out of hockey.
The managers who spoke to the media Wednesday said there is not enough of an appetite to establish a total ban on head hits. But after a long discussion they made a few tweaks to what the blue-ribbon committee proposed and ultimately voted to make a recommendation that the rule needs to be expanded to further protect the players.
"The tightrope we walk is this is a full contact sport," Toronto GM Brian Burke said. "It's been a full-contact sport since we opened our doors for business and it's one of the distinctive features of what we do and we don't want to change that. It's a full-contact sport and we cannot lose that part of the fabric of our game. What we have to do is take the most dangerous parts of it and eliminate those."
The NHL first ruled lateral and/or blind side hits (with the head as the principal area of target) as illegal on March 25, 2010. At the time, the punishment could only be doled out with supplementary discipline.
Rule 48 was written into the official NHL Rulebook for the 2010-11 season, additionally providing game officials with the ability to assess a major penalty and game misconduct for an illegal check in which the head is targeted from a lateral and/or blindside direction. The officials also have the option of assessing a match penalty under Rule 48, while the Commissioner's office can dole out supplementary discipline.
There were only eight on-ice calls based on Rule 48 during the 2010-11 season, and two were rescinded. Blake, who retired last summer after a long playing career in the NHL, said the players understand the rule so they generally avoided those types of hits.
If the GMs' recommendation this June is approved and enacted, the on-ice officials will be given the green light to call a minor penalty based on the severity of the targeted head hit. In that sense there could be more Rule 48 penalties called, which is another way to expand the scope of illegal hits.
"We came to the consensus here today to take that forward to the [Players' Association]," Blake said. "When we broaden it, it's broadened by direction and the penalty itself, whether it was a five- or a two-minute penalty."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl