Sports News

Rule on NHL blindside hits to have biggest impact on new season

TORONTO (Reuters) - New rules designed to generate more goals and fewer concussions will be vigorously enforced when the National Hockey League opens a new season this week, league officials said on Tuesday.

The rule likely to produce the biggest impact is a ban on blindside hits to the head that was developed and fast-tracked after a string of vicious hits last season.

When the season opens, Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard will not be on the ice as he battles post-concussion symptoms sustained in a blindside hit from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke that left the two-time All-Star sprawled on the ice last season.

Cooke’s nasty hit went without punishment and it reignited the debate on whether to make such hits illegal.

While the NHL stopped short of an outright ban on all hits to the head, the shoulder-to-the-head blow that Cooke used to flatten Savard will be illegal and get a major penalty.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned that some of the responsibility for player safety remains with the player being targeted, who he warned must keep their heads up.

“A shoulder hit that had been perfectly legal now puts the responsibility on the hitter to make sure that he is not targeting the head,” Bettman said on a conference call. “The puck carrier also has a responsibility to keep his head up to make sure that he is adequately protected.

In June the NHL said a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct -- the suspension of a player for the rest of that game -- can be issued for hits where an opponent’s head is targeted or is the principle point of contact. Supplementary discipline can also be applied.

With over 50,000 recorded hits last season, NHL general managers acknowledged the need to better protect players but were reluctant to water down the physical component of the game which they believe is key to the sport’s popularity.

“We wanted to preserve hitting in the NHL and our managers felt that at this point we had to shift the responsibility from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations.

“The aspect that drove the managers to make this decision was that 50 percent of the concussions were delivered from the blindside.

“Hockey is a hitting game. Like saves, like goals its part of the game and our managers were very sensitive about removing hits all together.”

New equipment standards will require shoulder pads have additional padding to help cushion blows while goaltender leg pads will be sized proportional to body size specifically to each player, reversing a trend toward massive oversized gear to cover more net space.

Editing by Frank Pingue