August 18, 2011
TORONTO — The scenario plays out every week in the NHL: one player risks injury by turning his back to a defending player, to either protect the puck or draw a penalty … but the defending player runs him into the boards like a battering ram anyway.
"What forwards have done in our league is they turn their backs on defensemen to protect the puck. It's a tactic. They're betting a defenseman won't finish his check and sometimes a defenseman does, where all their force goes into that player and all that force goes into the boards," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke.
"They're taking risks that they shouldn't take. Especially when they turn back with the puck where the defenseman's on their ass and he's committed to the hit, that defenseman can't do anything there but finish his hit."
Burke has been lobbying within the NHL to give the hitter another alternative — putting the opposing player in a "bear hug" rather than delivering what Burke called a "potentially catastrophic" hit.
The "bear hug" rule was tested during the second day of the 2011 NHL Research and Development Camp, as a few of the prospects in a morning scrimmage grabbed an opponent instead of throttling him with a check.
"Give a defenseman a fair chance to recover the puck without severely injuring a guy," said Burke. "The officials could differentiate and not allow the bear hug to become a tactic."
Yeah … about that.
The real danger with this rule is trying to eliminate one rule-bending tactic — players turning their backs on hits to draw calls — for another rule-bending tactic: Allowing one player to put another in a bear hug, restrict his movement and then hope that this doesn't turn into a form of legalized obstruction in the name of player safety.
"You bear hug him, but for how long?" asked Phoenix Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett, who coached one of the teams in the R&D camp scrimmage.
"It's supposed to be used as a safety technique. Today it turned into more of a clutch and grab," he said. "We were telling the guys 'bear hug, bear hug, bear hug' because they're not used to it. But they would hold on for way too long."
So like many of the rules tested at the R&D camp, the Brian Burke Bear Hug has both the potential to improve the game and the potential to put yet another arbitrary judgment call in the hands of a referee, leading to inconsistent standards of enforcement in every game and every night.
Is anyone really looking forward to watching frame-by-frame dissections of a plan, timed to the millisecond, to determine whether it was "a hug or a hold"?
Burke said he wanted to see more testing of the rule next year at the R&D camp and would not vote for it as a rule change quite yet.
But he said the potential's there for it to make the game safer:
"The most flagellant situation for me is one where a forward makes a hard pivot and comes right back into the track of the defenseman. He's gotta finish that hit and when he does sometimes that player is propelled like a billiard ball," said Burke.
"Give the defenseman the chance to go in there with him [and] avoid a potentially catastrophic injury."