Mind the hits

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

They carted off Marc Savard on a stretcher on Sunday, now see if the NHL sweeps him under a carpet.

Matt Cooke could wind up with a suspension, the general managers committee will have another intense deliberation on the topic on Tuesday and there will be more hand-wringing about head shots in the media and demands for automatic minors and majors.

But tinkering with the physical element of the game touches too close to home for a lot of people and not just those with power and influence. As much as the Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were critical of Cooke on Monday, and to a lesser extent, Chris Neil of the Senators, who flattened Toronto’s John Mitchell shoulder-to-noggin on Saturday, they were hesitant to urge more pages be jammed into an already thick rulebook.

And to underline the challenge referees already have interpreting the current regulations on checks to the head, neither Cooke nor Neil were penalized on the spot.

“It’s a very fast game, guys are big and strong and when you’re moving that quick, in a split second, some stuff doesn’t get seen out there,” said Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf, one of the league’s most feared hitters. “Contact is still a big part of this game and I think every guy in the league would say that. If a guy’s coming down the middle with his head down and you hit him with your shoulder, that’s a clean hit. He leaves himself vulnerable. That’s part of the game. You can’t take hitting out.”

What Phaneuf didn’t like of course, was that the two weekend offenders came from the side and aimed too high with their shoulders. Mitchell was kayoed from the game, shook off a mild concussion and played 24 hours later, while a recovering Savard was flown from Pittsburgh back to Boston to be examined by a specialist.

“I was terrified,” said Bruins’ Johnny Boychuk said as he watched doctors attend to Savard. “I talked to him through text messaging and he seems to be fine.”

As of last night, Cooke had not been suspended.

“There are certain reaction situations where you just stick a leg out or an arm out,” Boychuk said. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it should be a suspension or something. You can’t just go around hurting guys.”

Yet Boychuk’s comments convey a certain irony. A few months ago he was being roasted by the Leafs just as Neil was, for a hit on Matt Stajan. Boychuk has since resumed a fine rookie season and the incident has been largely forgotten, as the Mike Richards hit on Florida’s David Booth was moved to the backburner until after the Olympics.

The GMs were looking into this issue a year ago at the suggestion of the NHLPA and the weekend’s toll increased the focus when they gathered in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday. Calgary-based concussion expert Winne Meeuwisse addressed the GMs, prior to a sub-committee meeting on the topic Tuesday.

“I hope that we can do something that can help fix part of the problem, but it’s not really as cut and dry as a lot of people think,’’ Carolina Hurricanes’ Jim Rutherford told the Canadian Press.

“This is a real difficult task,” added league exec Colin Campbell. “The hits are great until someone gets hurt.”

Perhaps they’ll consider the two-minute minor that the Canadian Hockey League adopted three years ago for checks directed at the head. That and the fear of heavy suspensions for going overboard on any hit “has been a positive step and addressed a concern we all share,” said president David Branch.

Branch added there hasn’t been a spike in calls in the three years the rule has been in place and praised minor hockey leagues for taking a similar stand that limits the number of potential offenders when they reach the CHL.

Yet there’s no doubting a rogue element of head hunters thrives in the NHL. The only certain steps being taken for now are changes in equipment. Soft-cap elbow pads were introduced a few years ago and the major equipment companies continue developing new-age shoulder pads at the request of the league.

“We’ve re-done the foam, added about half an inch under the nylon outer liner and taken away more plastic,” said Brad Janson, North American pro hockey consultant for Easton Sports. “You can’t have it all foam or they’d look like the Michelin Man and then it becomes a hindrance, but it’s our hope we’ll submit it in time so that trainers can have them ready for players to take home this summer.”

By which time the debate could have melted again.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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