Cooke hit, GM meetings give NHL shot to protect players

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Here we go again.

The NHL has yet another chance to address the issue of blows to the head, and while it's never a good thing when a questionable hit brings the topic into the limelight, the latest infraction may been perfectly timed to affect change.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke leveled Boston Bruins star Marc Savard with a blind side hit to the head. Like several hits we've seen this year, it was vicious, and it once again brought to the forefront the debate on whether something needs to be done to better protect players.

Cooke's hit came just one day before the NHL's annual general manager meetings, putting even more pressure on the league to fix the problem. The GMs are currently gathered in Boca Raton and although it was already on the docket, the issue of head hits is really the only issue that matters now.

In short, they need to come up with some kind of an answer before the meetings conclude on Wednesday.

Marc Savard has been diagnosed
with a Grade Two concussion.
The league owes it players like Savard, who has been diagnosed with a Grade Two concussion as a result of the hit, to finally come up with something concrete that will in some way make players safer from head injuries. After all, Savard is a huge part of the Bruins' offense and may wind up missing the rest of the season because of Cooke's action.

Even Cooke's teammate, Sidney Crosby, seemed open to rule changes after Sunday's incident.

The Penguins captain and resident superstar said, "At some point there's got to be a clear indication from the league, because we've seen this so many times now."

And that's the most important thing for the NHL to come up with in Florida, some sort of "clear indication" as to what is illegal.

As of now, the NHL only considers it to be a dirty hit if an elbow is delivered to the head, and not if contact is made with a shoulder. All hits to the head have been banned in international play, and we didn't see anybody trying to cross that line during the Olympics, so maybe it could work in the NHL.

But what Crosby implied in his statement is what the NHL needs to come up with immediately -- a tangible rule change. It doesn't have to be a drastic change like the IIHF's zero tolerance policy on head hits. Not that we have to worry about that really, after all this is the NHL, which should never be confused with an organization receptive to big changes.

But, under the current NHL rules, the Cooke hit did not even draw a penalty, despite the fact that it caught a player from the blind side and was also delivered well after Savard released the puck. The officials apparently didn't think it was late and they saw that it was a shoulder hit so they let Cooke skate by without a penalty.

Yet when you watch the video, and see Savard lying unconscious on the ice, can you really feel that Cooke did nothing wrong? Is it possible that the GMs could watch that replay over and over and think that the rules of the game, as they are now, are sufficient to protect players?

A possible solution that is being kicked around in the blogoshpere is the banning of blind-side hits by the NHL. That would certainly draw a line against at least one type of dangerous hits.

After all, Savard wasn't irresponsibly skating with his head down, he was simply in the act of shooting when he was obliterated by a player he couldn't possibly have seen. Hardly seems fair.

A zero tolerance policy on blind-side hits, if enforced, would be a good starting point and would prove to the NHL Players Association that the league is serious about protecting its players.

The NHLPA has been way ahead of the league in identifying hits to the head as a major problem. Why wouldn't they be...the NHLPA has seen over 200 concussions reported by players over the last two and a half years and they have to answer to their members when it comes to medical coverage.

As far as Cooke's suspension, the penalty of games should reach double-digits, but as usual, the NHL brass will most likely fall short of expectations. Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations and the man in charge of suspensions, has routinely shown a lack of interest in making examples of players.

The league even failed to give Philadelphia's Mike Richards a single game for his notorious hit on Florida's David Booth earlier this season. That wasn't officially Campbell's decision, since he recused himself from ruling on the incident because his son Gregory plays for the Panthers, but clearly his underlings were just following the precedent the director has set time and time again.

Oh yeah, about the Richards hit, it occurred on October 24 and Booth didn't see action in another game until January 31. Not that the league knew Booth would miss over three months due to his concussion, but looking back, it seems impossible that Richards didn't have to sit out a single game for his head hit.

Missing the boat with Richards is just another reason why the NHL needs to seize their moment in Boca Raton. If they won't stand up for the players now, it seems unlikely that they ever will.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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