Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Maybe it's too early to deliver a verdict on Brendan Shanahan as VP Discipline. But as he stepped onto the rule-making ice for his first shift, he did very little to distinguish himself from those who came before.

This looks more a waiver wire addition for the NHL change machine than a blockbuster pick up.

It started well enough in August with the re-introduction of the Research, Development and Orientation Camp. At that camp, there were all kinds of things being tested, variations on icing, equipment tweaks, powerplays that last the duration. Changes that could have made significant differences to the game.

Kudos to the new guys for looking at these things in the first place.

It's perhaps not surprising that the more radical ideas on the table are staying there, for now. The game is growing in popularity (or so the book cookers say) and there isn't really a noticeable crisis in the goalscoring department that requires radical action.

But there were certain changes that needed to be made. Foremost among them was to do whatever it takes to eliminate the unnecessary injuries that occur when players hit other players around the side of the head. The action that was thought to be firm last year left us with memories of devastating hits with summer retirements and careers in jeopardy.

So when the announcement that the NHL has changed Rule 48 (the now infamous Illegal hits to the head rule), one could be excused for being underwhelmed with the conviction.

The full explanation of the changes is here. But the gist of it is this:

1) Last year, hits to the head were penalized when they were blindside or lateral. This year, those words have been removed. All hits will be penalized. (One step ahead)

Oh wait, it's actually up to the referee. Couldn't commit that far (step back).

2) Last year, the penalty was at least severe in theory. A major penalty would be assessable. This year, they deemed that too harsh, so it's now a minor call (several steps back?)

The net change is that the penalty is lessened, but the penalizable offence is broader. However, since we know the referees that have been given the freedom of interpretation (heaven forbid they weren't for the sake of safety) we can imagine the cockamamie explanations on the way for the unpenalized hits coming up this year.

It's a very weak response to a very serious issue. A completely unnecessary part of the game could be removed with leadership and conviction and fairly simple penalties, yet the team at the top bottled it.

Now consider their similar superficial changes to the boarding rule where they changed wording (vulnerable to defenseless).

Is anyone else worried that Shanahan might not be bold enough to break the establishment? Does anyone believe he even wants to?

If the real threat of retirement before 25 for the best player to come along in years is not enough to light a fire under these guys, what is? I think we all know the horrible answer to that question.

Let's hope an outcry, or maybe just some good sense from the players themselves (pipe dream), ends this nonsense before that day.

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