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The Player: Can we trust NHL, Shanahan’s judgment on hits?

The Player
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(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

I can honestly say that I've never purposely turned my back to get a call.

I have turned into hits trying to avoid a check and been put into the boards hard. Sometimes this resulted in a penalty to my opponent, and sometimes it didn't; but it was never a strategic move on my part to put my team on the power play.

I do believe there are some players in the league who employ this tactic strategically, but not many. I certainly don't think it's an epidemic.

Contrary to what a lot of people might think, I don't see this as an attempt to draw penalties. The guys who constantly put themselves in vulnerable positions are simply banking on the fact that their opponents will lay off them. They are trying to put all the responsibility on the hitter and assuming none of it themselves.

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It's reckless and gutless.

They can do this because they look around the league and see how lots of players are modifying their behavior to avoid running afoul of the new laws. Hitters saw Brendan Shanahan handing out suspensions daily in the preseason and they don't want to sit out games or lose money out of their paychecks.

Players first heard from Shanahan, the NHL's new czar of discipline, early in training camp. Every team was shown a video explaining the changes to Rule 48 (regarding hits to the head) and Rule 41 (boarding).

I was immediately struck by two things when I saw the video. First, the NHLPA's assistant to the executive director, Mathieu Schneider, has no hope of a future career in acting. If you don't believe me, go to NHL.com and watch the video.

And second, the league had just taken a significant step forward with regard to headshots, boarding and player suspensions.

Anyone who has been following hockey closely the last couple of seasons knows about Rule 48. This season, there is no longer a distinction regarding the direction of the hit (east/west vs. north/south); the head must be targeted AND the principal point of contact; the referee can now call a two-minute minor penalty for a hit to the head; and the league will take into account whether or not the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to, or simultaneously with, the hit.

In my opinion, and what I hear is the opinion of the majority of my teammates, these changes make a lot of sense.

It's clear that we're trying to get gratuitous head shots out of hockey, and why not? Nobody wants a concussion, and I would say that very few guys in the league really want to concuss someone else. It's the one injury nobody wants because it can not only end your career, it can ruin your life.

I recently read a story about how former NHLer Dave Scatchard, who was recently forced to retire because of concussions, can't push his kids on the swing set because the motion makes him dizzy and nauseous. That's not only scary but incredibly sad, and collectively that's not what players want for one another.

So, Rule 48 now says that blindside or not, you can't target an opponent's head either intentionally or recklessly. The tough part — and I believe it will always be the tough part — is how to deal with incidental contact to the head. Hard hitting will and must always be a part of our game. As such, it's inevitable that players will get accidental shoulders, forearms and even helmets in the head. We can't penalize this type of incidental contact in a hit when the majority of the contact is still body on body.

Similar changes have been made to Rule 41, regarding boarding. In this case, the rule now calls for a boarding penalty when contact is made on a "defenseless" player and he impacts the boards violently.

However, as with Rule 48, when determining whether the contact could have been avoided, the league will take into account whether the player put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to, or simultaneously with, the hit.

There probably isn't another rule in hockey that leaves so much room for debate on any given hit than boarding.

As players, we're constantly trying to drive one another, often violently, into the boards. What we don't want are guys going in headfirst because that's when very serious injuries can happen.

Ugly-looking hits along the boards most often occur when the player with the puck tries to avoid or turn away from the check at the last second.

Just imagine, as a forechecker, that you are coming full speed at a defenseman and you drive into him, shoulder to shoulder, to finish your check. As you do so, he turns sharply towards the boards to evade you and you hit him in the back putting him lips first into the glass.

Boarding? It's in the refs' hands now.

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SHANNY

What Shanahan has told us as players is that he will take into account the fact that the defenseman turned his back at the last possible moment — especially if the hitter makes an effort to minimize the contact.

Other instances of boarding might happen a little further away from the boards. A forward, in an effort to get a shot on net, might put himself off balance — in a vulnerable position, even though he sees a defenseman closing in on him quickly. The D-man drives through him sending him crashing awkwardly into the boards.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with that kind of hit. What players have always known intrinsically is when their opponent is "defenseless." In this situation, the forward is not "defenseless." He knows his opponent is coming and he knows full well what could happen if he tries to put a shot on net. He makes the choice and thus leaves himself vulnerable.

Just like the defenseman trying to evade the forechecker. If he takes the hit shoulder to shoulder he risks being separated from the puck. What he is trying to do is make a play and start the breakout. In doing so, he is knowingly taking a risk, and should therefore accept a large part of the responsibility for what happens after that. It is my opinion that an overwhelming majority of the players feel the same way.

The players themselves understand that there is responsibility on both the guy giving the hit and the guy taking it.

It's unreasonable for me to expect that I can cut across the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line with my head down and not have Dion Phaneuf try to blast me. In that case, I'm not "defenseless"; I'm just asking for it. If I was playing against the Detroit Red Wings, I can't reasonably expect Niklas Kronwall to lay off me just because I'm fishing the puck out of my skates.

What I can expect — what I think is reasonable — is that those guys don't lead with their elbows and aim for my chin. (Which they don't.) Play me as hard as you want but show me some respect and I'll do the same for you. I think that's all that the majority of the players in league ask from each other.

When it comes to enforcing these new rules, Shanahan has been a busy man to say the least. In a move that has earned him league-wide praise, Shanahan has taken to posting videos of controversial hits online and walking us through his decision to suspend or not suspend.

Clarity. Transparency. Logic. What a novel idea.

He was on camera so many times in the first week he had to bring in a new suit to the office. (And does he really need to keep introducing himself? Yeah Shanny — we know who you are.)

I think it's been great for everyone, from the players to the fans, to be able see how the league is arriving at each ruling. I thought it was interesting to compare two hits in particular:

Brendan Smith on Ben Smith …

… and Ryan Malone on Chris Campoli.

At first glance the hits look similar. Both look like hits to the head and in both cases there were injuries on the play. However, Smith got five games while Malone was not suspended.

In previous years, players, coaches and fans across the league would be asking "why?", but rarely would they get an answer. Shanahan makes the distinction clear in the videos. He argues that as Malone commits to his hit, Campoli significantly alters the position of his head, therefore absolving Malone of responsibility.

In the other case, he notes that Ben Smith does not significantly alter his head positioning, thus putting the onus on the Detroit defenseman not to make primary contact with his head. It's a small distinction, one that I'm sure not all the parties involved agreed with, but at least precedent is being set as we move forward.

There will always be a small minority of players who will try to abuse the rules the way they are written — we have seen it already. They will turn their back to the play preemptively as if to say, "You can't hit me, and if you do it's going to cost you."

I don't believe we can spend too much time worrying about this sort of thing. The league can't legislate against what a dishonorable 1 percent or 2 percent might do.

What's really called for, and what I think has been lacking in recent years, is a little common sense. The common sense of someone who knows what they're watching. Brendan Shanahan played for a long time in the NHL and was no stranger to the physical side of the game.

If you've ever watched an NHL game from ice level you know how fast it is. If certain players keep putting themselves in vulnerable positions, eventually they will receive bad hits — regardless of how careful hitters around the league are trying to be.

The new and improved rules more clearly define what is "clean" and what isn't, while acknowledging that there will always be some gray area.

For now, I am confident that we can trust Shanahan's judgment when things maybe aren't so black and white.

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