New Rule 48 could be just as confusing


On Monday, the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee will consider a decision by the NHL general managers to expand Rule 48 on blindside and lateral hits to the head. While the NHL inches its way toward a new rule, it’s uncertain at the moment exactly how the rule going to change and if it will be any more clear than the murky inaugural version that was on the books for 2010-11.

The league’s general managers said this week they would like to expand the original Rule 48, which outlawed some, but not every, blindside and lateral hit to the head. Rule 48 (linked here) was not only the most-discussed and contentious rule in the NHL, it was also one of the most misunderstood by players, fans and the media. That’s because it was designed to walk a tightrope of simultaneously addressing the rise in concussions while not inhibiting certain hits to the head which, despite their potentially dangerous consequences, the majority of GMs said they still wanted in the game.

There’s little doubt that the league’s ongoing concussion problem was not dramatically curbed by Rule 48 and all season there was increasing pressure to curb concussions and other injuries resulting from high-speed collisions from critics in the game (Penguins GM Ray Shero), former players (like Ken Dryden) and former referees (like Kerry Fraser), in the medical community and in the media (most recently, Roy McGregor of The Globe and Mail who wrote a scathing piece on the rule this week).

While the NHL trumpeted Rule 48 at the outset, its limitations soon became apparent. Those hits that targeted the head but were deemed “north-south hits” were discovered to be permitted, as were blindside and lateral hits delivered in what was termed the “hitting zone” behind the net.

The proposal, according to the few GMs who made themselves available after the Wednesday meeting will remove the “blindside and lateral” provisions, and that will negate some of the problem.

But it appears that the proposed new Rule 48 the GMs will bring to the Competion Committee on Monday will have some very exotic distinctions that will once again make this rule a complicated one for the hockey community to understand and cause problems in enforcing.

Exactly what the NHL general managers decided this week to present to the competition committee on Monday is unclear. They weren’t very specific about the language of the proposed change. But what is clear is that it is not a zero tolerance policy and, despite their efforts to broaden what constitutes an illegal hit to the head, their proposal contains some exotic formulations that will keep this a murky matter for fans and players to understand.

“In general terms what the group decided was to expand on illegal hits to the head,” said Brendan Shanahan, the NHL vice president who will become the league’s chief disciplinarian starting next season.

Shanahan declined to give details (“I don’t think it’s appropriate until we get in front of the other people, mainly the N.H.L.P.A., and make sure they’re comfortable with it,” he said). But he did allow for some area in which certain hits to the head will be permitted.

“There’s a subtle distinction between a ‘vulnerable’ player and a ‘defenseless’ player,” Shanahan said, explaining to a certain extent the thrust of the recommended rule tweak. A vulnerable player leaves himself open to a check by not looking in front of him when he has the puck or has just released it, Shanahan explained. A defenseless player is one in a position where he “shouldn’t expect to be hit.”

This is somewhat at odds with the way the proposal was explained over the CBC by Red Wings GM Ken Holland and Shanahan’s NHL colleague Rob Blake, who is part of the NHL’s “blue ribbon panel” on player safety with Shanahan, Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. Here’s that video…

…and it’s clear that what these gents are speaking about is all targeting of the head by opposing checkers or when the head is the principal point of contact. There’s no discussion here about distinctions between “vulnerable” and “defenseless.”

Clearly, there is still sentiment among the GMs to keep some hits to the head in the game, and if Shanahan’s distinction means anything, it means that targeted hits to the head that to “vulnerable” but not “defenseless” players will be permitted. How that one gets sorted out and explained to everyone should be mildly interesting, to say the least.

While the NHL has always claimed does not want to move to the sort of zero tolerance head contact policy such as exists in most leagues around the world with the exception of the professional game in North America, which penalizes accidental head contact as well as purposeful, proposing to allow targeted hits to the head of vulnerable players seems as if they are stopping well short of where they could go in the matter. There is apparently still sufficient sentiment among GMs that anything more than what they are proposing will curb the physical nature of the sport at the NHL level.

“We want hitting in the game,” said Senators Bryan Murray after the GMs met. “There will be contact to the head. Whether we like it or not, it will not be illegal all the time.”

“The tightrope we walk is this is a full-contact sport — it always has been,” said Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, a leader of the “hawks” on this issue. “We don’t want to change that. We want to eliminate the really dangerous parts of the game. But you’re going to get hit and there are going to be injuries.”

The next chapter in this ongoing saga will be written on Monday at the Competition Committee.


  1. aegyder says:

    I could not agree more with TomNickle. I do not understand why the rules have to change during the playoffs. I really hate the refereeing in the Boston-Vancouver final. The hockey morons applaud that no penalties are being called and blatant cross-checks, slashes, hooks and interference etc. have again become the norm. In no other sport are there two sets of rules.


  2. Duracell3 says:

    If you think it’s confusing, you should re-take elementary comprehension courses.

    On the other hand, the application will be as big of a joke as always.

  3. JohnBellyful says:

    Few like change in their workplace. Hockey players are no different. Sure as shootin’, there will be an uproar over the latest tweak to the rules to cut down on head shots. Here’s a couple of the more controversial decisions the National Hockey League has made over the years and the reactions:

    1917-18 – Goalies no longer penalized for dropping to the ice to make a save.
    Initial reaction:
    “What in God’s name are these idiots thinking, allowing a netminder to flop around like a fish on the ice to stop a puck?! Stand up and play like a man, why don’t ya, face the music. You let a man drop to his knees to make save, the next thing you know he’ll want to wear a helmet, like the knights did, to protect their pretty boy looks. For crissakes, if that ever happens, the players will be demanding lances to do their spearing, instead of good old Canadian hockey sticks. This is one rule I hope to see long gone before my grandchildren ever start playing.”
    – Billy ‘Jocko’ Thomas, coach of the Boston Bruins’ farm team, the Athol Athols

    1930-31 – A player whose stick has been broken cannot continue to play with what remains, but must replace with a new stick at his bench.
    Initial reaction:
    “You gotta be kiddin’ me! Just because I’m missing part of my blade, or even more, say I only have the shaft left with a sharp end, you’re tellin’ me I still can’t make a hockey play? Let me tell ya, I can still separate a forward from the puck using just a shiv, I mean, a shaft. In fact, I can still separate a forward. This league is getting so namby-pamby. I just hope they never make jockstraps mandatory. Or should I say womandatory, because that’s what we’d become, a bunch of … of… wusses. Yeah, wusses.
    – Eddie Shore

  4. solomio says:

    This is BS from the league. In hockey, which I’m sure most of has played at some level, there are body checks. Not head shots. And there is a big distinction imo. The difference is easily discernable.
    Head shots should be banned. Period. I think 99% of you will agree.
    Do the fans have no power / no say? Can they not make their opinions heard? We are the owners profits.
    Will Bettman ignore and slough off the fans like he did Air Canada?
    Don’t ask me ’cause I wouldn’t know how but hasn’t anybody put together a site where hockey fans in North America can register their votes against head shots. Where hundreds of thousands of names / votes can be brought to the leagues attention clearly and resoundingly illustrating that we, the fans of hockey, want head shots banned from the game entirely?
    There must be away.

  5. TomNickle says:

    In a perfect world, a GM would walk into those meetings with a video highlight tape of Brown elbowing Keith, Lucic cross-checking Moore, Torres targeting Seabrook and several other instances of players targeting the opposing players’ head. They would run the tape and then finish with the question. “How can we implement rules on head shots when we aren’t suspending the proper infractions in the first place”.

  6. TomNickle says:

    How about rule 49? Rule consistently. I guess that one’s more of a head scratcher than 48.

    • Number31 says:

      Yea, frankly make all the rules you want if the refs aren’t even following the rules what’s the bloody point? I don’t care if it game 1 in October or game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals and I don’t care if your a superstar or a 4th line grinder/ 8th defenseman on the depth chart. Call it like it is!

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