Rule 48 in the NHL covers illegal checks to the head, and has been touted by the League as means to curb brain injuries and other devastating results from reckless hits.
Part of the provision reads: "A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted."
According to Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports – in his long awaited return to his ’30 Thoughts’ column – Rule 48 has gotten an interested edit in the offseason, with the NHL and the NHLPA agreeing to this phrasing:
"... a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable."
It’s a significant change in language, but one that is in keeping with the rule’s application and evolution.
When Rule 48 was added to the NHL, it was in reaction to a series of devastating injuries caused by hits that clearly targeted an opposing player’s head: Matt Cooke on Marc Savard and Mike Richards on David Booth, chief among them. Scrambling an opponent’s brains was a way to separate player from puck and, in some cases, a chance to take your opponent our for a shift or a period or a week.
So “targeting” the head was a cornerstone of the rule at its inception. But as Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety began ruling on Rule 48 over the last two seasons, there was much more focus on hits that didn’t necessarily "target" a player’s head but ones that made principal contact with the head, but could have been avoided.
How many Shanaban videos broke down the nuance in a check to show how an hitter needed to modify his approach or body angle to avoid crushing his opponent’s melon? Quite a few.
So this change makes sense, given how the NHL has utilized Rule 48 prosecutorially.
If you’re wondering how a hit is determined to be “avoidable,” Friedman breaks down the criteria thusly:
First, the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.
Second, whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.
Third, whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.
Again, these are all standards that the Department of Player Safety seemed to be applying whether or not “such contact to the head was avoidable” was in the rule. We’ll still be left with players wondering what, exactly, they could have done to avoid head contact on some hits, outside of freezing time or being a contortionist.
But now it’s in black and white that the onus is on the hitter, with the caveat that the hittee can’t put himself in harm’s way to draw the call.