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NHL GMs, Rule 48 and the myth of banning head shots

Bruins right wing Nathan Horton is tended to

Bruins right wing Nathan Horton is tended to by a trainer after taking a hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. (June 6, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

The league's general managers met Wednesday in Boston, prior to Game 4 of the finals, ostensibly to sharpen the league's oft-cited Rule 48, which was instituted at the end of the 2009-10 season to clean up hits that resulted in concussions.

That all came in the wake of Canucks D Aaron Rome knocking the Bruins' Nathan Horton out of the Finals in Game 3 with an ugly hit. Rome was banned for the remainder of the Finals, an unprecedented suspension in a Cup series; it seemed that trading Rome for Horton would benefit the Canucks, but Keith Ballard stepped in last night and was awful on defense. Meanwhile, Rich Peverley skated in Horton's spot and scored twice. Go figure.

But back to the GMs and Brendan Shanahan, who will be taking over Colin Campbell's thankless job as NHL disciplinarian next season. As you see here in the transcript of Shanahan's press conference yesterday, he's not carrying a pitchfork and leading the charge to ban all head shots.

Leafs GM Brian Burke, who also once held that NHL VP of operations gig, was his usual blunt self as well. As he told reporters:

"I think people look at these interviews and they say: 'These guys don't care about head shots.' The tightrope we walk is, this is a full-contact sport. It has been since we opened our doors for business, it's one of the distinctive features of what we do.

"We want to eliminate the really dangerous parts of the play but this is a game where you're gonna get hit and there's gonna be injuries, and we've got to start with that basic understanding."

Burke can be a bit strong at times, but I happen to agree with him here. The hand-wringing comes almost exclusively from those on this side of the game -- media, the occasional fan and, even rarer, players, coaches and executives.

Yes, the Rome hit was brutal. A decade ago, teammates would have patted him on the back after Horton was stretchered off; perhaps that's an overstatement, but I certainly don't recall anyone but Flyers fans expressing outrage when Scott Stevens put Eric Lindros into semi-retirement in the 2000 Eastern Conference final.

The game is filled with far, far less dirty play than 10 years ago, or more. The post-whistle nonsense in these finals has taken away from what's been a very good series between teams that are working on 40-year Cup droughts. Feistiness is welcomed; a three-goal lead in the third period leaving the door open for all sorts of pushing and shoving really isn't.

But, to the main point: There is no way to protect NHL players from injury, especially concussions. If Aaron Rome were specifically banned from hitting Horton in the head -- if there were, say an automatic 10-game suspension for such a hit that, accidentally or otherwise targeted the head -- what good does it do Horton now?

Rome is taught to rub out a player who doesn't have his head on a swivel. All top-level defensemen are taught that, even in the OHL, which has a specific ban on all head shots. In Game 3 of the Finals, in a scoreless game, with one of the better forwards coming through the neutral zone and looking away... Aaron Rome and about 100 other NHL D-men would step up to take out Horton.

So the NHL will take out the word "blindside" from Rule 48, and perhaps that will help eliminate ugly replays like Horton's eyes fluttering back in his head. The game is so fast now, the players so big, I'm afraid to say that no rule, no minimum suspension will change what the players do that much.



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