Group to study issue, report in March

TORONTO -- The NHL's 30 general managers agreed Wednesday to study the idea of making blindside hits to the head illegal next season.

A group of seven GMs will be formed within the next month to specifically study the issue and report back to the full group at the next general managers' meeting in March.

"Everybody in the room knows this is an important subject. It's going to require further discussion because it's not a simple subject," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the meeting wrapped up. "I do think there's a sense that when there's a shot to the head for a player who's in a vulnerable position, or is unsuspecting, that's something that perhaps can and should be addressed."

The crushing blow by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards on Florida Panthers star winger David Booth earlier this season was the kind of blindside hit most of the GMs at the meeting believed possibly should be made illegal. According to the current rulebook, it is considered a legal hit.

"The Booth hit in particular I personally feel that if that was my son I wouldn't want for that to be the way he was hit," Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero said. "What Mike Richards did was within the rules we have currently. That's not the issue. The issue is making the game as safe as can be.

"I don't think we're looking for a big rule change but maybe we can tweak something. There's not many of these a year, fortunately. There might be four or five. But when they happen, they're catastrophic."

Hits to the head have resurfaced this season as a hot-button topic around the NHL, and the subject was reignited by the Richards hit. The Flyers star was not suspended by the league because it was a clean hit with his shoulder. Booth remains out with a concussion.

The general managers also seriously discussed the issue last season at the March meetings, but could not come to a consensus.

"It's a topic that is hard to get everybody to see it the same way," Nashville Predators GM David Poile said. "I think every manager is a good and concerned citizen, we don't like when players get hurt, we don't like it when somebody gets taken off on a stretcher.
"But over the course of one game, there's 40-plus hits, so you multiply that out, that's 50,000-plus hits over the course of a season. There's no manager that wants to take hitting out of the game. For these 10 or so hits, what's the right thing to do?"

But now it appears there's at least a movement toward possibly eliminating blindside hits.

"A player should have an ability to anticipate a hit, prepare for a hit or avoid a hit," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "If he doesn't have those, then I think the onus has to shift to the hitter. He's got to deliver a safe hit ... It's never going to be a safe workplace, but we've got to make it as safe as we can."

If the GMs do officially recommend at their March meetings to made blindside hits illegal, then the competition committee (comprising players and team executives) also would need to approve it before the NHL's Board of Governors has the final say in June.

"It was quite a bit different, some of the guys who have taken a strong position that it may take hitting out of the game have adjusted their views a little bit," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. "If we continue down what was talked about today then we will see a change.

"It will be on the agenda of the next meeting and I think if we got the direction that it appeared we were going, you will see a change for next year."

Burke is one of the former hard-liners who has softened a little on the issue. A big concern for the group has traditionally been that a rule banning head shots might inadvertently lead to the elimination of all bodychecks.

One thing that stands out for NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell is just how much the sport has changed and evolved. He sat down and watched a game from the 1970s recently and noticed how much less physical play there was.

"The hitting today is so much more evident," Campbell said.

Player safety was a key theme from Wednesday's meeting as the GMs also looked at some new equipment.

Mark Messier made a presentation on behalf of manufacturer Cascade Sports, which has designed a helmet aimed at limiting concussions. Messier made a few sales as Burke indicated he wanted to get some for the Toronto Marlies AHL team.

Some of his colleagues were impressed by it as well.

"I like the look of it and think it's an advancement in technology that any player should be open to," Vancouver GM Mike Gillis said.

Among the other agenda items discussed Wednesday:

- Deputy commissioner Bill Daly scolded the GMs for long-term contracts designed to circumvent the cap and provided an update on the three deals (Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo) currently being investigated by the league.

- A financial update on next year's salary cap, which isn't expected to change drastically.

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun was used in this report.