It came in to effect four months ago, but we have yet to see it in action. It promises to increase player awareness and, more importantly, safety, while returning power to the referees.
You wouldn’t really expect to hear those words said, not about professional players or officials. After all, these guys are the pros, they’re the best. Why wouldn’t the best players in the world, the most talented of the on-ice competitors, be aware of their surroundings?
And how could referees at the highest level lack power? Sure, they’re degraded at every opportunity for either “putting the whistle away” or “making the game about them," but neither of those buzz phrases ever gives off the idea that they don’t, or allowed the game to escalate to a point where they didn't, have power.
That was before David Booth was slow to get up or Marc Savard had his career derailed by another hit to the head, or Paul Kariya, Daniel Alfredsson, and countless others were “head-hunted," having the fact that they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads exploited by their opponents.
After a scary emergence of head shots the past few years, the NHL hopes to have finally implemented a way to control them, to stop them. Until we see it on ice, though, we won’t know if it’s the last we’ll see of head shots.
Last year at the general managers' meetings in March, there was a new rule made:
A lateral, back pressure or blind side hit to an opponent
where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of
contact is not permitted.
Just months later, when the competition committee met following the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup championship, the rule was altered slightly but the players essentially kept what was forced upon them a few months earlier, intact with strict repercussions outlined.
If a player attempts a blindside hit to the head, he will be handed a five-minute major and a game misconduct. Along with that, the league will investigate it further after the game and determine whether more of a punishment (Suspension; fine; 10 minutes of listening to a debate between Sean Avery and Daniel Carcillo over the long-lasting psychological effects of the Bush Administration) is necessary.
The way that they're defining a blindside hit is through direction: Basically, it's an “East-to-West” hit. So coming from the side or from behind on a player and making contact with his head is a no-no. If a player is simply stood-up, face-to-face with his opponent, the play continues.
While there has been opposition to new rules and proceedings that have been introduced to the NHL (like the shootout), as well as the pleadings to change some of the more prehistoric rules that the NHL had continued to slip up on (touch icing, hich they’re only getting to now with “hybrid icing”), there has been nothing that these two sides have been more cohesively built toward changing than this.
For the league, it’s preserving the talent that’s going to make them money, and saving the lives of these young men. After a lockout that could’ve killed the sport and a series of events that had many viewing the NHL as “sheer goonery," the NHL not only saves lives as it works to kill the epidemic, but it preserves its image in the process by actually addressing the problem.
With the NHL in a state of watching the dollar bills flow in and out to make sure they end up on the right side of the ledger, the far more impersonal side of things regarding a player comes in to play too. Obviously the league wants to avoid any situation in which a player or a player’s family sues the league for big bucks if he were to lose any day-to-day ability (or, God forbid, his life) from one of these hits.
The league could ill-afford the negative press, the lukewarm markets that would be frightened off, or the legal bills.
For the players, it was an obvious fix. As much as they want the open-ice hockey and they trust in their friends and teammates to follow the code, they don’t need anything to shorten their careers, or their lives.
If you want to know how this might impact the game, we can compare it to some of the rules from the Research, Development, and Orientation camp that was held earlier this summer. The new rule wouldn’t be like setting a referee up above the play or preventing teams from making a line change after an offside, both things that would consistently affect the play. This change is more akin to the added goal-line, a rule meant to enforce the referee's judgment and provide a defined end point to a conflict.
The one problem is that this may not change the way the players play for a while, and maybe not ever.
In junior hockey a player is ejected from the game if he fights during an exhibition contest. However, that hasn’t stopped players from dropping the gloves in hopes of making an impression.
While head shots may be tapered, they won’t be eliminated altogether. The odds are that they’ll still happen, but with the players’ ever-growing education on the dangers of head injuries along with the impending reprimands, they can be limited.
Based on how fast the game has become though, it’ll be hard to eliminate them altogether with one little five-minute major.
The league and its players have taken the right steps to change the culture of hitting from behind and from the side, as well as targeting the head of an opposing player. The 2010-11 season is a positive step in that direction from the rulebook. Once it’s fully embraced on the ice, the players will have done far more than preserved a business and its commodities. They’ll have preserved lives.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer along with a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to contact Bryan, you can do so through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.