- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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We take a break in the Sidney Crosby All-Star saga to take a look at the real underlying story amid all the attention.
The game's best player has been sidelined two weeks and counting by a concussion. This is exactly what the NHL had hoped to avoid with the establishment of Rule 48 this season.
To recap, Rule 48 states that "a lateral or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted." But so far this season, what's clear is that either Rule 48 doesn't go far enough or there's confusion in how to implement it.
I think it's a bit of both.
Regardless of how you feel about David Steckel's collision/hit on Crosby in the Winter Classic, the question must now be raised about whether it's time to push Rule 48 even further. Ban all hits to the head, period, regardless of intent. Steckel said he didn't see Crosby. The league agreed and decided it was an incidental collision. And that may very well be true.
But would a stiffer, all-encompassing hits-to-the-head rule change the culture to the point that players would be even more careful? The flip side to such an amendment is the fear that it would take too much hitting out of the game. That's a risk worth taking, in my mind. There are still too many players suffering head injuries in this game. (Anyone seen Matthew Lombardi or David Perron lately?) And although Rule 48 has been a good development, it's not good enough.
Two years ago, former NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly attended a GMs meeting in which he called for a new rule that would essentially ban all hits to the head. Kelly, now the executive director of U.S. College Inc., told ESPN.com on Tuesday that, under the NHLPA's proposal that year, the new rule read that "a hit to the head is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit and therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and the checking player intentionally or recklessly targets and makes contact with the head of the opposing player with any part of his body including hand, forearm, elbow or shoulder."
North-south, east-west, blindside or straight on, that rule was much more encompassing.
"I applauded the move by the GMs when they made it last year because I thought it was a step in the right direction," Kelly said. "I do think that the rule we proposed a year earlier went further, and going further is necessary if we're going to protect players in this game. The players are bigger, faster and stronger."
Crosby himself has said publicly that the league might want to re-examine the rule. After the Steckel hit and being driven head-first into the boards by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman (the last time Crosby played, on Jan. 5), the Penguins captain discussed hits to the head.
"I know it's a fast game, and I think if anybody understands it's a fast game -- I've been hit a thousand times," Crosby told reporters on Jan. 8. "But when you get hit like that, there's nothing you can do. There's no way you can protect yourself. Those are things that hopefully [the NHL] pays more attention to."
"You are trying to change the culture on the ice," Kelly added. "You're trying to get players in that split second to understand they can't go after their opponent's head. I just think for the benefit of protecting the players and the long-term interest of the game, they should take another look at this."
No matter which side you're on in this argument, Crosby's return remains uncertain. He told local reporters Tuesday that he's "gotten better," but he still suffers headaches.
"Once you get better, you realize how far you've come," Crosby told reporters. "Some days you feel good. You feel like you've made progress. Some days are a little bit tougher. That's all tied into this type of injury.
"It has gotten better. It's tough to put a timetable on it. I feel like I've progressed a lot, especially the past week or so. Hopefully that's a good sign."
Would Crosby or any other player's injuries have been prevented if Rule 48 were any different? For the NHL, it's a question worth pondering.