On October 24th of 2009, Mike Richards played a significant role in the league’s shift towards protecting the heads of its players.
That night he laid a devastating hit on Florida Panther David Booth, keeping him out of the game until February. Ultimately, with his team’s playoff hopes gone, he sat out the final few weeks of the season.
Richards’ was just one of several other hits, most notably the Penguins’ Matt Cooke’s blind side blow to the head of Boston’s Marc Savard in early March. He was not able to return until the playoff series between Philadelphia and Boston. Despite being cleared to play at the time, Savard has since experienced post-concussion symptoms during the offseason.
The speed and violence of the game is increasing, from the technology of the skates down to the sheer strength of the players. And the amount of lasting concussions is a testament to that. In response, the league issued a policy of subsequent discipline – in the form of suspensions – to players that violated the rules that would later be officially implemented.
The key rule is the following:
Illegal Check to the Head
A lateral or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted
Simply, this rule states that any hit coming from behind or more importantly from a player’s side (as was the case with the Richards and Cooke hits, with players hustling on the backcheck) in which the head – not the shoulder – is the main point of contact is now illegal.
This season it is not a matter of letting it go during the game and waiting for a possible suspension. Now the referees are in control of calling this a penalty.
There’s stiff punishment for violation of this rule, being that there is no minor penalty to be called. Instead, the player will immediately be given a game misconduct along with a major penalty to be served by a teammate. At the ref’s discretion – if he deems that the player intentionally targeted his opponent for this hit and it was not a mere accident – he may issue a match penalty to go along with the game misconduct. This will subject the player to an immediate suspension and likely supplementary discipline from the league.
Until now, the player receiving the hit has been the one responsible, under the idea that he has to put himself in a better position, keep his head up, and be aware of where his opponents may be coming at him from. These “blindside” and “lateral” hits now put the responsibility on the player delivering the hit – where it should be.
There are still clean, violent hits to be had in hockey, though. Those hits coming in a “north-south” situation, such as a player skating up-ice and failing to notice an opponent stepping up to lay a check on him, is still clean.
Also, if a lateral hit connects primarily with the shoulder, it is deemed a legal check as well.
Hits to the head through illegal actions such as elbowing, charging, boarding, and so on will continue to be enforced as before.
The league has also taken a stance on several other issues that it deems important. Some of these are new interpretations of old rules, and others are just reminders that the league is going to look to enforce these more heavily this coming season.
The league is also trying to crack down on excessively low hits – most often hip checks connecting with the knees. A clean hip check can still make contact with the opponent’s hips and so the effectiveness of the hit is not being taken out, the player’s are simply being forced to be more careful with the way they throw their bodies around.
Any physical contact during an icing touch-up play will be looked at more closely this season, with possible on-ice penalties for tripping and boarding, with possible supplementary discipline.
Off-Ice / Warmup Fighting
Any fight involving a player that is not on the ice surface – whether it be a bench player attacking a skater, vice versa, or two bench players attacking each other – is to be enforced with a misconduct or game misconduct penalty on the players involved. Similarly, any team whose players instigate an altercation during warmups (or any other situation outside of the game) will face fines and the players involved will face supplementary discipline.
Any identifiable player who uses obscene, profane, or abusive language or gestures directed at any persons runs the risk of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty
That’s the explanation of unsportsmanlike conduct as per the league-issued instructional video. Any player caught threatening opponents or fans, using inappropriate language directly at another player, referee, coach, and so on will likely be slapped with a minor for unsportsmanlike. This is a now a brand new rule, but rather one the league is trying to crack down on this year.
These new rules and policies are going to be noticeable in the coming season, as players adjust to a cleaner style of hitting.
For the Flyers, that new season kicks off this Tuesday with their opening preseason matchup against the New Jersey Devils in the newly renamed Wells Fargo Center.