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Head Games

Players are confused by a new rule intended to combat concussions, but they need to give the NHL time

As rule changes go, it was a no-brainer. Rule 48, approved by the NHL's Board of Governors during the off-season to cut down on the disturbing number of concussions, forbids lateral or blindside hits to the head and demands greater responsibility from the bodychecker. The rule has given officials greater leeway to impose major penalties—and NHL brass to impose supplementary discipline—on offenders. "It's a culture change," says Terry Gregson, the NHL's director of officiating. "We're taking an element of what was always legal and making it illegal."

As in the NFL, which recently implemented new rules in an effort to curtail concussions, there has been player backlash. To date the league has fined Ottawa's Nick Foligno and Edmonton's Tom Gilbert $2,500 apiece and suspended two All-Stars—San Jose's Joe Thornton for two games and Phoenix captain Shane Doan for three—for violations under the rule. "It's just bizarre and baffling," Thornton said of his suspension. "Players throughout the league are confused right now about what's a clean hit and what's a dirty hit."

The NHL, which has seen an average of 75 concussions in each of the last four years, had long talked about curbing head shots, but two incidents last season were catalysts: Philadelphia's Mike Richards's hit on Florida's David Booth and Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke's blow to Boston's Marc Savard.

The league has gone to great lengths to explain Rule 48, including compiling video footage of players complying with the rule and showing the tape to players. Gregson points to Boston's 6'9" Zdeno Chara, who practically has to kneel to keep his shoulder checks below an opponent's head, as a model for the new rule. "Chara let up on a shoulder hit and rubbed his man into the boards," Gregson says. "He could have lowered the boom, but he learned."

Others, however, still insist that the new standard is being applied unfairly—or at least inconsistently. In his return against Ottawa last month, Doan, who had never before been suspended and has no reputation for dirty play, recalled his uncertainty in pursuing Senators defenseman Chris Phillips. "I forgot how to hit, and I took a slashing penalty," he said. "That's the learning curve, like the holding-the-stick calls. We didn't know how to handle them at first, but we figured it out."

In the 1995--96 season the NHL faced a similar outcry from players when the league decided to more strictly enforce obstruction rules only to reverse course. But Rule 48 is here to stay, and Gregson says that the players need to let the season play out before forming an opinion on the change. If they do, clearer heads will prevail.

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COLD TRUTH Booth was laid low last year, one of two incidents that spurred the NHL to take action.