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What the NHL’s new boarding, head-shot rules mean for safety

Along with officially giving Winnipeg an NHL franchise again (R.I.P. Thrashers), the NHL's Board of Governors approved two significant rules changes to boarding (Rule 41) and illegal checks to the head (Rule 48).

The essentials from the NHL:

A boarding penalty will be assessed for a hit on a defenseless player that causes the victim to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The new wording requires the player delivering the check to avoid or minimize contact if his opponent is defenseless. It also allows the referee discretion to determine whether the recipient of the contact placed himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the collision and whether the check was unavoidable.

A penalty for an illegal check to the head will be assessed for a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact. The qualifying terms "lateral or blind side" for such hits have been deleted.

In both cases, the rules changes broaden the scope for new NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan(notes) to administer fines and suspensions; yet they also place a considerable amount of responsibility on the players being hit.

Here are the changes in the boarding rule; last season's is on the left, and the new wording is on the right with changes in bold:

What the NHL’s new boarding, head-shot rules mean for safety

The addition of the word "dangerously" could probably be interpreted as "recklessly"; it doesn't take a stretcher to earn this call, as the play simply being "dangerous" enough to warrant one can determine the penalty. At least in theory.

Again, notice the emphasis away from the hit itself and onto the impact on the boards. It's less about a guy taking 14 strides into his victim's back and more about the aftermath.

But the victims aren't always the victims, and the rule change tackles that uncomfortable fact. The onus is still on the hitter; however, the hits in which a player turns his back to a check to earn a call aren't necessarily going to earn one under this rule.

Again, in theory.

As for Rule 48:

What the NHL’s new boarding, head-shot rules mean for safety

The changes here are significant. While it stops short of a total ban on hits to the head, we're pretty darn close to one. There's a provision for victims putting themselves in a vulnerable position or if a hitter could do nothing else but make contact with the head, but otherwise it's pretty much noggin off-limits.

The other big change: The Rule 48 minor penalty. One assumes this is for the "head as a primary point of contact" rather than "the head is targeted," the latter likely meaning a match penalty.

Does getting rid of the 5-minute major for Rule 48 mean referees will be more likely to call an infraction on the ice?

Both rules put the primary responsibility for player safety on the hitter, but don't ignore the victim potentially putting himself in a vulnerable position. That's the right approach, but one that requires on-ice officials to make some serious judgment calls: How many times will we see a referee decide not to penalize a player on a hit from behind if the player that was hit (a) turned his back to draw a call but (b) ended up being carted out?

All we can ask for as fans is consistency from officials, on and off the ice. Hopefully these rule changes lead to more of it.

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