Rule change passes

Penalties sought for hits to head

Staff writerMarch 11, 2010 

The NHL's general managers approved a recommendation Wednesday that would penalize dangerous blind-side hits to the head.

Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said the proposed rule change was a "step in the right direction." Other league GMs, including those who feared a new rule might take too much hitting out of the game and hurt the competitive nature of the sport, made it a unanimous vote of approval.

The recommendation: "A lateral, back pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or is the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline."

The proposal next goes to the league's competition committee. If approved, it then would go to the NHL board of governors for final approval, and it is expected the rule would be in force next season.

"It will be good for the game," said Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu, one of the team's most physical players. "I can't say there's a lot of head-hunting that goes on. I don't think anybody tries to go for someone's head to hurt them - that would be sick. But something has to be done."

Rutherford served on a small committee of GMs that studied hits to the head and passed along the information to the larger group in their three days of meetings this week in Boca Raton, Fla. The Canes have had several players sidelined - former defenseman David Tanabe, retired at age 28 - in the past few years because of concussions, and Rutherford has been a proponent for stronger measures to prevent injuries.

Last season, center Brandon Sutter suffered a serious concussion after taking a shoulder to the head from Doug Weight of the New York Islanders. Sutter was leaning forward with his head down, in a vulnerable position, when Weight slammed into him from the side.

No penalty was called, and Weight was not suspended by the league. And Rutherford conceded such a hit may fall into a "gray area" for referees enforcing the rule.

"It's a good question. There will be a fine line, a gray area, in how one ref interprets it and how another ref interprets it," he said. "There will always be those hits that are very close one way or the other. That (Weight-on-Sutter) hit may be one that's right on the bubble.

"Don't be mislead. A player can still be hit. But it is those hits where a player has a free shot at a guy and has him lined up and hits him from the blind-side with a shoulder to the head ... those are what we want out of the game."

The Ontario Hockey League has a zero-tolerance policy on hits to the head, and many doctors, health professionals and those who have studied the effects of concussions believe it's the right approach.

But Rutherford said former NHL coach Scotty Bowman, a legendary figure in the sport, and others spoke out at the meetings against adopting the junior hockey league's policy in the NHL.

"Scotty Bowman said it had taken hitting out of the game in that league and taken away from the game," Rutherford said. "Other NHL people who have seen OHL games say the same thing."

Canes coach Paul Maurice, while saying it will make the referees' job tougher, said the players should adjust quickly.

"The margin between a clean, hard hit and a devastating hit that may be illegal is very small," he said. "It will be a lot harder for referees to pick up on those than people think."

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