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Can we trust the NHL to enforce its own head-shot rules?

Greg Wyshynski
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After the NHL's general managers announced last week that they will soon enact legislation that would penalize hits to the head, I asked captain Chris Clark(notes) of the Washington Capitals for his reaction to head-shots soon becoming illegal.

Which was: "I thought they already were."

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His answer perplexed me a little, because there's been such a rabid debate over drastic measures regarding hits to the head during this injurious season. We needed new rules, right? We needed new legislation to eliminate checks involving the head from NHL games; from making certain types of hits illegal to nearing a total ban of contact with an opponent's head.

Clark's matter-of-fact answer was a revelation about how some players feel regarding the potential head-shot rule: They're already illegal, but they're just unenforced.

It's a notion that aligns these players with characters like "Mad" Mike Milbury, who feels new rules about hits to the head are superfluous at best and preposterous at worst.

In a way, shocking as it is. Mike Milbury is right; and his concern speaks to an unspoken facet of the GMs' decision, which is whether we can trust the NHL to actually follow through on its own campaign to lessen dangerous hits to the head.

Glenn Healy, formerly of the NHLPA and now with CBC Sports, often cites that 76 percent of players were in favor of a rule against head shots. But how many of them believe, like Clark, that there are already rules in place to deal with them?

Charging, for example, can be called for any blindside hit that's currently being cited as evidence for the necessity of head-shot rules:

A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player or goalkeeper who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.

Charging shall mean the actions of a player or goalkeeper who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A "charge" may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

That's the point Mike Milbury was trying to make on Hockey Night In Canada this weekend, in between ham-fisted logic like "players have always had concussions, so why not today?" From HNIC:

"Yes, people cross the lines, and when they cross the lines they should be penalized. That's in the hands of [NHL VP] Colin Campbell ... if we think head shots have really come into play, give it to the guy who's already in charge of that stuff. The rules are already in place."

Again, there's no arguing with that opinion: The NHL rulebook has, in several places, rules against harmful physical play that could be applied to any head shot. Mike Richards(notes) on David Booth(notes) of the Florida Panthers? That's charging, by the letter of the law.

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The problem, however, is that the law is too vaguely defined and NHL disciplinarians are too docile to define it.

That's what made the general managers' decision to stipulate hits to the head as illegal such a landmark decision for the NHL. It's a level of specificity that doesn't currently exist in the rulebook. Whether you believe this is a change for better or worse, clearly spelling out the conditions for that penalty is going to mean less interpretation for referees and League officials; interpretation that typically involves personal biases on what or isn't a "hockey play" determining the judgment.

Whether or not you believe a hitter is trying to make a play, if he makes contact with another player's head and the rule state that it's illegal, what's a ref going to do, right?

Yet there's still concern that a black-or-white definition of illegality for a hit to the head won't be enough to curb them. From William Houston of Truth and Rumours:

Not said by Milbury is that Campbell, the NHL's senior vice-president in charge of discipline, won't do anything. That's not a problem for Milbury, of course, because he describes himself as a "Neanderthal" who likes things just the way they are.

Still, he's correct when we says that for the most vicious of the head attacks we don't need the NHL general managers wringing their hands - and dragging their feet (apologies for the mixed metaphor) - over how to legislate new rules, as they did last week in Toronto.

Had Campbell adequately addressed the issue three years ago, we wouldn't have a problem today.

The GMs' decision to address the head shots was celebrated as positive, overdue progress for the NHL in protecting their players. But cutting through those vibes is the stone-cold reality from guys like Milbury and Houston: We're assuming the officials who haven't been whistling dangerous penalties for years, despite having the rulebook on their side, are going to begin doing so with a clear-cut rule on the books.

You know, just like hooking. Or slashing. Or diving. Because those are always so consistently enforced.

Perhaps that's why players like Chris Clark favor this head-shot rule in theory, but have their reservations about its effectiveness in reality:

"It's a good thing, but I don't know how they change the rule from what we already have. If it's a head shot and there an additional penalty, maybe," he said.

"But it comes down to the ref's discretion. Maybe they change the rule and call everything for the next month, and then lighten up. When they change rules, it's tough on us."

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