NHL rules video sets high standard, Price takes heat, more notes
The new enforcement video will help hold the NHL accountable to the public
Boston refuses to rule Marc Savard out for the year; Panthers' Booth ready to go
The last thing the Canadiens wanted to see was Carey Price booed in preseason
The NHL this week released a video (below) to illustrate the parameters of a new rule regarding illegal hits to the head. It also tacked on a series of calls that will be made for other hits, illegal checks and contact near the end boards.
The video is informative...and slick. It's maybe a little too slick, given the background music that makes it look like a video game as players try to separate opponents' heads from their necks, but mine is a small complaint.
The video opens with two of the most controversial head shots from last season: Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke delivering a blow to the head of Marc Savard that left the Bruins' center concussed and his future (still) in doubt. We also see Philadelphia's Mike Richards deliver a shot to the head of Florida's David Booth that, with a second hit later in the season from Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek, left the Panthers' best offensive player on a constant concussion watch list.
There is much to be discussed here, including what will surely be a hue and cry from blood-sport boosters about the ongoing "pansification" of hockey. In hindsight, though, the best thing about the Savard and Booth incidents is the undeniable fact that they forced the NHL's general managers to cross a line that many of them didn't seem to want to even approach.
The Cooke hit appeared to be nothing more than a deliberate attempt to injure a player who never had a chance to see the blow coming. After it was struck, the NHL Hockey Operations department dug itself into a deep hole by refusing to discipline Cooke, but his obvious intent and the degree of Savard's injury created a massive outcry for change that the NHL found hard to ignore.
Richards' hit on Booth, also a non-supplemental discipline event, only added to the outcry. Booth stated repeatedly during the offseason and at the start of the Panthers' training camp that he's fine and has had no long-term effects, but he knows that with two serious blows to the head in a short period of time the Panthers and the NHL are wise to keep an eye on him.
The league is to be applauded for including these shots in the video. Clean hitting is surely a part of the game, but in the past, the NHL has regarded these types of devastating blows as both clean and a part of the game. In changing the rule, the NHL is apparently attempting to change some of the game's culture while holding itself accountable.
Any on-ice official who looks the other way when such a hit occurs this season will be held to a high standard of scrutiny. The video illustrates the new rules not only for on-ice officials and the NHL's Hockey Operations staff, but for the media and general public. For the league to ignore what is so clearly evident will only bring down more criticism, and one can be relatively certain that the first time a gray area shot goes uncalled, there will be questions as to not only the competence of the on-ice officials, but the backbone of hockey ops when it comes to cracking down on violations.
The way the rule is worded; there is no "somewhat acceptable" blow to the head. The initial wording was that a minor penalty could be called at the discretion of the referee, but after howls of protest from inside and outside the game, it was changed to make the infraction a major penalty with the possibility of additional supplementary discipline. This isn't a bad thing for protecting players. Another amazing aspect of the video is that the NHL seems intent on cracking down on other dirty elements of the game that are covered under existing rules but increasingly ignored.
Darcy Tucker's infamous knee-crippling hit on Michael Peca from 2002 is a case in point. Tucker seemed intent on going low enough to undercut Peca at the knees. That is a supremely dangerous play, but it had become somewhat common. Even without public pressure, the NHL has seen fit to warn players that the existing rules for such hits are now going to be enforced.
In that same light, the video shows that instances of massive hits along the end boards during obvious icing plays have also become common. There was a push to eliminate these hits with a no-touch icing rule, and the league looked at that idea, and a variation, at its summer Research and Development Camp. No rules changes came out of it, but at the very least the NHL took a step forward in announcing via the video that such plays will be called within the existing rules. This is a major victory for many in the leauge.
Former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith has argued for years that these kinds of already illegal hits need to be eliminated. "A guy goes back to play the puck on an icing and it's a race for the puck and that's the way it should be," Smith told me during a recent interview in Toronto. "But why does he have to be a target? You shouldn't be allowed to trip him up with a poke of your stick into his blades, but we've allowed that to happen and on a regular basis. You shouldn't be allowed to come from 10 feet away and slam him face-first into the glass with a hit from behind, but that's happening as well. Why would we ignore tripping and boarding in that area of the ice where a player is most at risk, but call it everywhere else? It makes no sense."
As with all new rule changes, the devil isn't just in the details, it's in the commitment to enforcement. In releasing this video, the NHL has put itself on record as at least attempting to set a higher standard. We can only hope that the league adheres to it.