Long overdue, NHL set to eliminate hits to head

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The dazed and distant look on Brent Seabrook's face after the Chicago Blackhawks defenseman got crushed against the boards cried out for a head shot ban - in time for the third period.

The sight of Boston Bruins star Marc Savard out cold on the ice after a vicious hit March 7 sent a message about the need for attention to player safety, too. And it followed the forced retirements in recent years of Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and others who suffered multiple, debilitating concussions.

The NHL deserves credit - against a backdrop of congressional hearing on sports head injuries - for recognizing the danger of reckless hits and moving to create a rule that will forbid head contact against unsuspecting skaters. But some wonder what took so long.

The NHL Players' Association proposed a rule last June that would protect the league's most important asset - its players - by eliminating hits to the head. General managers initially had been cool to the idea of a blanket ban.

Now, there's some urgency to the issue.

One day after Savard had his season ended Wednesday by a blindside hit from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, GMs began three days of scheduled meetings that concluded with the recommendation that head shots be removed.

Not only are new guidelines for penalties coming, they are coming soon. DVDs have been sent out explaining the parameters of what will and won't be legal. Supplemental discipline could potentially be meted out for hits to the head before next season.

``I hope they do it. I think the players want it as much as anybody else,'' St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said. ``There are maybe 1 percent of people who don't want it. I love it. Let's stop.

``It's everybody's responsibility to protect players because there are some players that are just doing things across the line. We've just got to get the attention of these people. It's just not worth careers.''

NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell took several days to review Cooke's hit and decided that current rules didn't forbid the shot he delivered to the unsuspecting Savard. The umbrella of attempt to injure could have been applied. By not suspending him, Campbell determined that wasn't Cooke's intention.

Backlash ensued, and then came the case of Anaheim Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski.

Wisniewski launched himself into his former teammate Seabrook, who never touched the puck, and sent his helmeted head smashing into the glass. Wisniewski didn't hit Seabrook in the head, but his charging infraction was dangerous. Seabrook has already missed one game, and the repeat offender Wisniewski will sit out eight with a suspension.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville called it, ``the most dangerous hit in the history of the game.''

``You hit a guy without the puck, you can kill a guy,'' Quenneville said. ``He tried to hurt him. If that's not intent ... that's as bad a hit as you can ever have in the game.''

``I've never gone around and just hit people without the puck,'' Wisniewski countered. ``It's not football. It's not like I thought I was doing that at the time. It's a fast game. It happened in a split-second. I thought he played the puck, you finish your hit.

``When I saw that he actually didn't play the puck, he was right beside it, then you lose sleep over it.''

It's not that the executives didn't want to protect players, or that they didn't believe concussions were a problem. The concern was how new rules would be enforced. Hits by shoulders are legal in the NHL, regardless of where they make contact with an opponent.

Sometimes the shoulder of a big defenseman like Philadelphia's Chris Pronger would be head high against a smaller player. Should Pronger be penalized for being tall, or be thrown out of a game because his target ducked when he saw him coming?

And what responsibility does a player have in absorbing a hit? It has always been part of hockey chatter that once you make a pass, don't get caught admiring it.

The players' association said it has been in regular contact with the NHL since the GM meetings last week. The league sent the union the proposed rule, and on Friday the union received the video outlining hits that would be illegal and legal if the new rule passes through the competition committee and is approved by unanimous vote by the league's board of governors.

Former New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens made a career of those bone-rattling hits at the blue line that always toed the border of clean vs. dirty. His most famous blow laid out Lindros during the 2000 Eastern Conference finals - a hit that by NHL rules was OK.

As long as you don't leave your feet or lead with the elbow, you aren't breaking the rules. After all, the thinking was, players shouldn't skate through the neutral zone with their heads down.

Times are changing. Blindside hits that target players skating east to west could soon be outlawed.

``It's long overdue,'' said Blues forward Paul Kariya, a Stevens victim in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals.

Kariya, who scored his 400th NHL goal on Thursday, missed the 1998 Winter Olympics because of a concussion sustained when Gary Suter caught him with a cross-check.

``I have been through so much with that,'' Kariya said. ``I don't know why it took so long for them to put this rule in place, something so important. It's something that should've been in place years and years ago.''

Tagged: Eric Lindros, Bruins, Blackhawks, Flyers, Penguins, Blues, Ducks, Marc Savard, Chris Pronger, Matt Cooke, Paul Kariya, Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski

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