The NHL is slowly taking away all the small details we loathe enjoy debating following the near nightly head shot. Prior to today we had to assess if the hit was late, if the head was the principle point of contact, and if the hit was delivered from the blindside.
Now that’s all changed, and suddenly I feel empty.
Continuing what seems to be a day of important yet incredibly unsurprising news, the NHL furthered the fight against dangerous hits. Two sections of the rule book will be modified after changes were approved this afternoon at the board of governors meeting. The most notable change comes to the infamous Rule 48, which is the root of the league’s nightly confusion.
Previously, Rule 48 dealt only with lateral or blindside hits, with the full wording reading as follows:
A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.
This eliminated the sickening hits in which a player had no opportunity to brace for contact and defend himself, often resulting in a violent snapping of the neck and a serious injury. But that’s where the language ended, and any straight-on hit where the head of an opponent was a clear point of contact was lost in the abyss. Now the gray matter has been minimized, although it’ll never truly go away.
The new wording for Rule 48 eliminates any specific reference to a lateral or blindside hit.
48.1 Illegal Check To The Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was unavoidable, can be considered.
The existing framework remains, with the language now accounting for a direct hit to the head of any variety. For example, Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton that resulted in the end of both players’ Stanley Cup Final earned Rome a suspension primarily because it was late. Discussion of Rule 48 inevitably surfaced, but that discussion was minimal because while Rome struck Horton’s head, the hit wasn’t delivered from the blindside. Now Rome’s blow would be covered under the umbrella of Rule 48.
The league also made changes to Rule 41.1, the boarding rule. In short, a boarding penalty will be given to any player who “checks or pushes a defenceless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously.” However, the league admits in its language that there is still an enormous amount of responsibility given to officials on boarding calls.
If a player sees his target is in a vulnerable position, it’s his responsibility to ease up or take measures to avoid the dangerous hit. But if contact is made, the referee has to assess the extent to which the opposing player put himself in a vulnerable position. Translation: it’s a judgment call.
That’s where the shades of gray creep back into the league’s ugly head shot portrait. The changes to Rule 41.1 and especially Rule 48 represent an encouraging step forward, with a clear position of zero tolerance towards head shots now established. Let’s not fool ourselves though, as no amount of legislation tweaking will instantly erase the influence of the Wheel of Justice. We’ll still debate whether the head was truly tragetted, and in doing so call for suspensions ranging from one game to 25.
The debate will fade when the current culture of hitting begins to change, and hopefully today’s rule modifications will start that process.