Some guys have gotten the message. That struck Brendan Shanahan(notes) just a week into the regular season, when he watched the Carolina Hurricanes’ Tuomo Ruutu(notes), a player famous for finishing his checks, with the chance to finish another one. The elements were there for a devastating hit – the Ottawa Senators’ Mike Fisher(notes) coming across and shooting the puck, bent over, head lined up; Ruutu streaking on his blind side.
“And he passed it up, and I couldn’t believe it,” said Shanahan, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business development. “I thought, ‘I think right there that’s one concussion saved.’ Those moments are hard to track.”
We have seen several examples of illegal or borderline hits this season, with the head-shot and concussion issues a hot topic in sports. Anyone can spot those incidents. But it takes an experienced, sophisticated eye to spot the plays where the NHL’s new head-shot rule has had an effect. And let’s face it: No contact means no news.
“A hit that was legal last year is now illegal, and as much as we’ve shown some players that have still delivered that hit, I see examples every game of other players who are passing up that hit,” Shanahan said. “When something doesn’t happen, that can’t get replayed on ESPN.”
That said, Shanahan thinks the message needs to be driven home further.
“I think we believe in the rule, and I think it’s a matter of communicating it better,” said Shanahan, who starred for 21 seasons in the NHL before joining the league office. “We sent out video at the start of the year that was pretty clear, but I’ve been in some of those meetings as a player. You get a league video almost every year. Sometimes you spend most of that video session on your BlackBerry or eating a sandwich. Until you get suspended. Then you say, ‘Where’s that video again?’ ”
Yahoo! Sports has spoken to multiple players around the league who don’t know the specifics of the new head-shot rule. Shanahan said he often hears TV commentators get it wrong, which “sends out confusing messages.”
The league has not banned lateral hits. The league has not banned hits to the head. What the league has done – via Rule 48, instituted in March – is ban “a lateral or blind-side hit” in which “the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”
“It’s got to be both components,” Shanahan said. “And so right now I think what we talk about is, ‘OK, we sent out a video at the start of the year. We got everyone to sign off on it.’ Now we need to follow up and say, ‘Do we all truly understand this?’ ”
Shanahan thinks the NHL should conduct some sort of follow-up education generally. He already has followed up personally. He called the Phoenix Coyotes’ Shane Doan(notes) after Doan was suspended three games for violating the new rule – partly to let Doan share his perspective, partly to let him know where the league stands.
Doan still disagrees with his suspension, saying “some of it puzzles you” and “you don’t understand it.” But he said he appreciated that Shanahan had reached out “to try to help me understand what was going on. He gave me some examples on what they were thinking.”
Said Shanahan: “I always felt as a player, ‘I’ll sort of play by whatever rules you want me to, but I just want to know what they are.’ … Our players are talented guys and can adapt. It’s a matter of making sure they all completely understand.”
Donald Fehr is making an impression as he makes the rounds, traveling and meeting with players as part of the process of becoming the new executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.
Fehr ostensibly is interviewing for the job. The players will vote whether to hire him within a few weeks.
But the vote is a formality. Fehr, formerly the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has been working for the NHLPA as an advisor. He has been recommended by the union’s search committee, and the union’s executive committee has accepted that recommendation.
What Fehr’s tour is really about is introducing himself to the players, educating them on the issues and unifying them for the upcoming round of collective bargaining. It’s also to, well, bond with them.
Fehr met with the Detroit Red Wings not at the arena or a hotel conference room, but at a restaurant. Wings forward Dan Cleary described the meeting as “very informal.”
“I just like him,” Cleary said. “I think players like him, players respect him. That’s a big thing. He’s not pulling any punches. He’s telling how it is, straight-up, exactly what he has plans for, and I think guys respect him for that. …
“He has to get a feel for the players. He likes hockey, but he doesn’t know that much about it. I don’t know if we need a guy that knows a lot about hockey. We need a guy who has what is in the best interests of the players, and I believe he does.”
Two weeks into the season, and already there is trade talk.
Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli needs to clear salary-cap space because of the impending return of injured players Marc Savard(notes) and Marco Sturm(notes). Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray is looking to spark a struggling team, while Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke wants more firepower in his push for the playoffs.
The problem is, the reasons some teams want to make deals are the same reasons others are reluctant to make them – parity and money.
The Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs by one point last season and went all the way to the Stanley Cup final. While everyone is desperate for points, even at this stage, no one is conceding anything.
Burke said in an email that he can “sense activity picking up” but there is “nothing close here.”
“Nobody will panic after a slow start,” Burke wrote. “Too early.”
Then there are financial complications. Most teams – with Toronto a notable exception – are already up against their budgets or the cap. GMs don’t want to take on salary, but they don’t want to give up players off their rosters for prospects and draft picks, not when they have still have a shot.
“The league is tight, so it appears no one will make a move unless they are helping themselves immediately, and money has to match,” Murray wrote in an email. “It’s tough to do both.”
The NHL already has made one concrete decision based on this year’s Research, Development and Orientation camp: It will hold another RDO camp. Shanahan has gotten the green light to bring in more top prospects to test ideas for improving the game – same time (August), same place (the Leafs’ practice facility in Toronto).
“Even if 80 percent of the testing is the same from (the previous) year, I don’t think it’s enough to do it just one year and say, ‘Here are the results,’ ” Shanahan said. “We’ll change the test subjects, we’ll get a new crop of 17-year-olds, we’ll change the conditions a little bit, and we’ll see if the results change.”
* Since scoring on his first shot in his first game with the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Modano(notes) has not recorded a point and is a minus-6. The 40-year-old is still getting into the kind of shape the Wings demand from their centers.
* The NHL’s strongest division? The Central. It boasts two of the last three Stanley Cup champions – the Detroit Red Wings (2008) and Chicago Blackhawks (2010) – and it is the only division in which every team has a winning record.
* Is anyone really surprised the Edmonton Oilers are not going to send No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall(notes) back to junior? They don’t just want him in the NHL. They want him to develop alongside fellow youngsters Jordan Eberle(notes) and Magnus Paajarvi(notes), hoping they will be teammates for a long time.