New rules must be enforced to help safety

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Once again, the NHL is turning to its own rulebook to try to make the game safer for its players and more palatable for its fans.

Now it's a question of whether the league has the will to make it work as it has in the past.

The NHL GMs agreed that the standards for calling existing charging and boarding penalties need to be toughened and, along with more penalties called on the ice, there needs to be supplemental discipline if warranted.

More frequent calls on boarding and charging are another part of a multipronged effort by the league announced Tuesday at the NHL GMs meetings to reduce the number of concussions. There have been about 80 reported concussions this season.

A lot of the focus is on players who are vulnerable, Atlanta GM Rick Dudley said after the GMs broke for the second day of their three-day meetings.

"I think we're concerned about the charging and the boarding and not maybe changing rules but being strict on some of the hits," he said.

"Sometimes there's a legal hit made and sometimes there's a hit where the player is completely unaware of the player coming, and those are the ones you want to watch, especially when they're in the area of the boards," Dudley said.

Officials will be looking especially for these dangerous hits around and below the goal lines.

Many injuries take place at that part of the rink because forwards are back checking all the way into the defensive zone, sometimes arriving late and taking out unsuspecting players, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray explained.

Now players will have to learn that if they travel a great distance and at high velocity, referees will look to call a charge or boarding penalty.

"I think by tightening up some of the rules we have now, enforcing the rules we have now, especially the boarding and charging calls -- we hardly see charging called anymore -- the play below the goal line, things like that, we're going to help the safety of the players and also keep the fabric of the game intact," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said.

The idea harkens back to seminal changes to the game that took place coming out of the lockout. Although new rules were introduced to help enhance the speed of the game, arguably the most significant changes came with how league officials called hooking, holding and other obstruction fouls that had been laid out in the NHL's rulebook for years.

Players adapted to the new standards for calling those rules, and the game has never been faster.

Now players will have to learn a new set of guidelines for what will be acceptable when it comes to hitting other players.

It is more than a little ironic that one of the key players in those important changes that arrived post-lockout, Brendan Shanahan, now finds himself working with GMs Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Yzerman and another newcomer to the league offices, Rob Blake, on a committee to help move recent safety recommendations forward.

"I remember coming out of the work stoppage. We said, these are the rules; we think they will unlock the game. But this isn't the finish line," Shanahan, now an executive with the league, said Tuesday.

"I don't think you ever say here are the rules for the next 100 years," he said.

Along with changing the boarding and charging standards, the NHL will introduce a new head shot rule, although the exact wording of that new rule is still a work in progress.

"There's not support on a widespread basis for a blanket head hit rule, but we are going to look to see if we can come up with a head hit rule in addition to Rule 48 [the rule that prohibits blindside hits] that focuses on dangerous hits, hits when a player is vulnerable or engaged with another player and a third player comes in or when there's excessive force," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.

"So we're going to see if we can get something more precise than a blanket head hit rule," he said.

The competition committee must confirm changes to the rulebook before they are sent to the Board of Governors for final ratification.

The only reason the league was successful in changing the culture of obstruction coming out of the lockout was a commitment from the officials and league itself to call the game a certain way and the rapid education of the players.

The same dynamic must be in place again if the league is going to be successful in cutting down on the number of injuries in the game.

"I recall the first two years coming out of the lockout, people were calling the NHL the No Hit League. The solution for player safety is not to go backwards. Then we're just chasing our tails," Shanahan said.

The solution isn't to allow more obstruction to slow down players.

"In five years, we'll have another one of these meetings and talk about unlocking the game," Shanahan said.

"It's healthy. Every few years, we have to re-evaluate the game, make tweaks and adjustments. The coaches and players, the game will never stop evolving."

If anyone should know about evolution, it's Shanahan, even if evolving means simply going back to the same old rulebook for answers.