Head-hunting ban biggest change to NHL

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:23 PM ET

It was five years to the day Tuesday since the "new" NHL was ushered in, rising from the scorched earth of the lockout that saw the 2004-05 season go dark.

The cutdown on obstruction and the introduction of the shootout made the return of the NHL actually, well, exciting, an adjective that hadn't been used in connection with the league which had become almost unwatchable as goalies, defence and the old guard dominated the agenda.

Five years later, with the NHL poised to open the regular season Thursday, the ramifications of those rule changes on the ice and the impact of the salary cap are truly being felt.

The game has never been faster -- and in some cases, meaner -- and the salary cap has seen the league get younger. The cap has led to the shedding of almost half of the members of the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks and will see more teams scrambling to get under the salary cap by 3 p.m. Wednesday.

There's not much to report in dramatic rule changes for this season, but there is no question the new ban on blindside hits and lateral contact with a player's head is significant and represents a progressive move both on the part of the league's general managers, who drive the rules agenda, and the board of governors, who approve the changes.

According to a league study, 50% of the concussions sustained by players were the result of those lateral or blindside hits.

"Even the hawks (among the general managers) who loved hitting said we have to do something about concussions," said NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, who took part in a conference call along with commissioner Gary Bettman and other members of the hockey department Tuesday. "Hockey is a hitting game and like saves and goals it's part of the entertainment aspect and part of the game of hockey. The GMs are sensitive about removing hitting from the game altogether."

At least now we're not subjected to the "man's game," argument we got every time an unsuspecting player was concussed. The predatory player now bears responsibility for a lateral hit while the puck carrier is still responsible for defending himself in the so-called "north-south" hits.

While there was an agreement between the league and the players association for the playoffs that such hits would be subject to supplemental discipline, the "in-game" rule was approved in June and is now in effect. There is no minor penalty for the infraction, only a major and game misconduct or match penalty, with the hit subject to possible supplemental discipline.

The blindside hit rule is the most important new rule for this season, though there are also rules banning incidental contact on icing calls and new regulations on the size of goaltenders' leg pads, continuing the league's aim to get the equipment more proportional to each goaltender's particular size.

Other developments:

"The NHL and its on-ice officials came to a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract Monday night, though it's subject to ratification by the referees and linesmen.

"It was not our intention or desire to lock the officials out and play with replacements," said Bettman, adding as long as talks were being productive they would have continued to operate under the previous agreement, which the two sides had been doing through the pre-season.

Bettman said reducing the number of on-ice officials from four to three by dropping a linesman was never considered.

"The Marche Bleue in Quebec City to bring back the Nordiques didn't go unnoticed by the NHL.

"I'm aware of the fact that 60,000 people in Québec City came out in support really of a new arena. We have never doubted the passion for our game in Québec City. We know there are great fans and great interest. But any discussion, any possibility, of a team going back to Québec City depends on the possibility of a new arena. That's something that's not within our control," said Bettman.


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