TORONTO (Reuters) - National Hockey League general managers took the first steps toward banning shots to the head on Wednesday by establishing a committee that could recommend a rule change for next season.
“We’re dealing with people’s heads, people’s careers,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford told reporters at the end of two days of meetings.
”Based on the conversation today and the points that were made I sense that we have a chance of some kind of change for next year.
Hits to the head have become the hot issue through the early part of the NHL season with the sight of players sprawled unconscious across the ice following vicious hits triggering calls for change.
The eight-member committee is unlikely to recommend an outright ban on contact to the head but is expected to eliminate blindside hits.
Any recommendation for a rule change must be presented to the NHL’s competition committee and then put forward to the board of governors for ratification.
The issue is both complicated and sensitive. General managers understand the need to better protect players while expressing reluctance to reduce the physical element of the sport which they feel makes the game unique.
“None of us want to see hitting removed from the game,” said Vancouver GM Mike Gillis. “It is an integral part of hockey, it’s exciting, it’s part of the fabric of the game,”
“Everyone is concerned about player safety. It’s just how, when and to what extent you go to protect players.”
Finding agreement among the league’s 30 general managers on what qualifies as a dangerous hit will not be easy but the mood for change was clear.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke described the process as a “balancing act” as the league strives to reduce the risk of serious head injuries without straying too far from the traditions on which the game was built.
”It’s a rough sport, there’s not a safe place on the ice surface and it’s never going to be a safe work place but we have to make it as safe as we can,“ said Burke. ”We’re never going to eliminate injuries.
“Our job is to make the game as safe as we can make it without reducing the amount of hitting that is distinctive about our game in North America.”
A wide range of issue were dealt with over the two days, including a proposal to have players buy their own sticks and skates.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said commissioner Gary Bettman would meet Alexander Medvedev, the president of the Continental Hockey League (KHL), in Washington later on Wednesday.
The NHL and the Russian league have been feuding over contract issues and player transfers.
Editing by John Mehaffey