NAPLES, Fla. — The majority of NHL players are more worried about receiving a shoulder to the head than a punch to the face.
And the level of concern is strong enough that the NHL Players’ Association believes the league should adopt a rule that penalizes deliberate shots to the head.
NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly delivered that message to the league’s general managers as they kicked off their annual meetings Monday. He would like referees to have the option of handing out a minor, major or match penalty to players that "intentionally or recklessly" target the head of an opponent.
"That’s probably the most significant concern on the part of players," Kelly said after addressing the GMs for an hour. "I would say better than three-quarters believe that we need to have a new rule on hits to the head, that protects players.
"We’re looking for not all hits to the head — there are accidental and inadvertent hits that don’t cause a great deal of injury."
That is a key difference from the standards currently being enforced in both the Ontario Hockey League and U.S. college hockey. Each of those leagues has banned headshots completely.
Kelly is wary of that type of policy because he thinks a guy like Zdeno Chara — listed at six foot nine — should be able to throw legal hits against a smaller player that might involve some contact with the head.
Essentially, he’d like to see referees given the power to hand out penalties when they believe there is some malicious intent on a play.
"Right now you can blindside a guy," said Kelly. "You can see a player coming through the centre of the neutral zone, looking away to take or receive a pass and you can drop your shoulder straight into his head and it’s a perfectly legal and appropriate hit.
"We don’t think that is correct. We think that is a serious safety issue."
If the rule fails to gain traction among the GMs, it’s likely because it involves such a large grey area.
Some of them don’t like that the referee would have to judge intent. Others said that they think headshots are already covered by existing rules.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke suggested that it might reduce the number of hits thrown during games. Even still, he thinks it should be talked about and considered over the final two days of meetings.
"I think we have to look at it," said Burke. "I think when the players ask you’ve to look at something then you have to look at it."
These meetings give the GMs the chance to do just that. After examining key issues here, they pass on any rule recommendations to the league’s competition committee and board of governors for approval.
Kelly’s presentation on behalf of the players only touched briefly on fighting — the hot-button issue at the meetings. He says the players believe it’s an important part of the sport.
However, he also acknowledged the importance of examining the issue in light of the tragedy that saw Whitby Dunlops defenceman Don Sanderson die earlier this year after hitting his head on the ice during a fight.
There seems to be a sense that if the GMs make any recommendations this week, it will likely be something similar to the OHL’s rule of stopping fights when a player’s helmet comes off.
But it’s far from a guarantee. Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray was part of the six-man group that examined fighting on Monday afternoon and indicated that the helmet rule isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.
"I think the whole discussion right now is if you have a visor on and fight, it’s tough to be a fighter if you have that on," he said. "The people like Jarome Iginla who take them off, because he thinks it’s fair to take it off — are we telling him you can’t fight anymore or are we telling him you can fight with a visor on?"
Ultimately, the debate is going to continue.
.Most people close to the game seem to share a fairly strong desire to keep fighting in the sport. Even with public pressure and the GMs closely examining the issue, sweeping changes still seem a long way off.
The challenge is finding some kind of compromise for both sides.
"It’s not done yet, we’re kind of split," said Murray. "I believe we’ll have, at the end of the (meetings), a consensus."
League disciplanarian Colin Campbell seems far less certain.
"I’m not confident that we will have a set of recommendations Wednesday at noon," he said. "I’m confident that we’ll probably have a good set of recommendations going forward for next season.
"I can’t come out and tell you guys once (the meeting) ends, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do."’