The first decade of the NHL’s Rule 48 When these rules were implemented, they made a significant change to how the game was played. This article will explore what this rule means for today and discuss whether it is still effective in its current state.
“There is no such thing as a hockey period.” That’s what the NHL said in the first decade of the NHL’s Rule 48. The rule was created to make it more difficult for teams to pull off long scoring droughts. It has been successful, but not without its flaws.
With a sound effect similar to a jail door locking, the NHL logo whirled around before locking into place. The next picture on the video was of the town’s new sheriff.
“My name is Brendan Shanahan, and I’m the senior vice president of player safety for the National Hockey League…”
In 2011, Shanahan was 42 years old. He had taken a position with the NHL two years before, after retiring from a Hall of Fame career. He was instrumental in the formation of the league’s first Department of Player Safety in June 2011. It would not only suspend gamers, but would also reveal its work via informative films like this one, in a groundbreaking step.
“An incident happened in a game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild on Friday night in Minnesota…”
After the bell rang to close the period in a preseason game on Sept. 24, 2011, Blue Jackets defender James Wisniewski executed a big hit on Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck, as seen on video. The attack was late, deliberate, and perpetrated by a serial perpetrator. But there was something more about the strike that Shanahan noticed: Wisniewski had broken Rule 48.1 for an unlawful check to the head, a newly introduced rule.
Wisniewski was given a 12-game suspension. The league’s other teams were put on notice. It would no longer be acceptable to target the head-on inspections.
“You might still hit fantastic hits if you’re a great player with terrific timing. People, on the other hand, intended to target the head in the game “Shanahan recently told ESPN, ten seasons after the Department of Player Safety was established.
“It was a thankless and difficult job. Regardless of how harshly we were chastised, we tried to remember that our goal was to make the game safer and better.”
In 2011, Regulation 48 still smelled like a new rule. Shanahan’s suspension video was among the first produced by the department. He utilized terminology like “the head is targeted,” “primary site of contact,” and “previous history of punishment” for the first time.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
There were 80 sanctions for hits that violated Rule 48 in the preseason, regular season, and playoffs from 2011-12 through 2020-21. The Department of Player Safety was founded on this guideline. It’s a regulation that was put in place to limit the incidence of concussions in the NHL, and it’s fundamentally impacted the way the game has been played in the last decade.
“What was previously debatable has now become evident that it is unacceptable in the game. I believe the respect element has increased “Steven Stamkos, the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, said. “Some of the more severe suspensions have been installed. There isn’t as much gray space for players, in my opinion. We are aware that there are consequences.”
Here’s how the regulation came to be, how it’s affected the game in its first ten seasons, and what’s ahead.
When Rule 48 was enacted, George Parros, the current director of the Department of Player Safety, was a winger with the Anaheim Ducks. He had no recollection of it altering the way he played.
“The only thing I remember is Shanahan and [NHLPA executive] Mathieu Schneider releasing a video, which we were required to view in the dressing room. To be honest, it was a little amusing. They were both rigid as a board “he said
Since September 2017, Parros has served as the department’s head. In the regular season of 2017-18, the NHL had just one punishment for an illegal head check, the lowest amount in seven years.
“I think we’ve fine-tuned the game quite a bit,” Parros remarked. “Because the game is so quick, we witness a lot of hits. We encounter something with a purpose every now and again, but it’s quite unusual.”
Since then, the number of suspensions has varied. In 2018-19, the number of regular-season suspensions was increased to eight, for a total of twelve. The 2013-14 season had the most illegal check to the head punishments, with 15 in total. The lowest number was four in 2019-20, a season cut short by the COVID outbreak and marked by playoffs staged in bubbles with no spectators.
According to Icy Data, which analyzes NHL penalties by type, the Ottawa Senators had the most minor penalties for checks to the head (34), followed by the Boston Bruins (33) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (32). (26).
“In our department, we view over a thousand video every year. About 150 of these would entail physical contact with the cranium “Parros remarked. “You can image how many were fine, and how many were in that murky area of what we’re attempting to define here if we suspend five or six times a year for an unlawful check to the head.”
Several of the NHL’s most severe sanctions have been based on Rule 48, including:
Rule 48 has changed the way fines are enforced, suspensions are given out, and body checks are delivered. It may have even opened up the game offensively, according to Shanahan.
“I see people cutting through the high slot and shooting shots on goal today, and you don’t see players zeroing in to strike them,” he remarked. “It’s not always about following the rules. It’s because the players didn’t want that hit in the game anymore.”
Stamkos, on the other hand, felt that the policing of illegal head smashes led to bolder players in the spot.
He remarked, “I don’t believe it’s impacted folks taking ice in the middle.” “A person elbowing you in the head is something you never consider. It’s unavoidable.”
There was a time when the NHL had no redress if this happened. For decades, strikes to the head were captured on VHS highlight videos rather than in courtrooms. A prohibition on head strikes looked like an unlikely notion.
“There were probably a variety of causes,” Parros added. “However, there are two that I believe are the most significant: first, our awareness and understanding of the effects of concussions was rapidly increasing at the time — similar to other sports’ — to the point where it changed the way we thought about such hits in a game where the puck-carrier is normally bent forward, leading with his head.
“Second, any such prohibition would have been a significant adjustment, since everyone in the NHL at the time had been trained and educated to hit in a certain manner. They’d have to shift on a dime, believing that everything they’d been doing for the last 25 years is suddenly prohibited.”
Despite these obstacles, a push to outlaw head checks gained traction by the end of 2009.
“The David Booth one was so, so horrific,” one NHL insider said, “that it truly stopped everyone in their tracks.”
David Booth’s smash hit
Two hits during the 2009-10 season created the path for Rule 48 to be implemented. The hockey world sought huge sanctions in both instances, which the NHL thought its regulations didn’t sustain.
On October 24, 2009, the first was delivered. The Florida Panthers were in town to play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Panthers’ top goal scorer from the previous season, David Booth, was carrying a puck through the Flyers’ offensive zone. The Flyers’ Mike Richards cut across on a backcheck and whacked Booth in the head. The Panthers forward slid to the ice, smacking his head on it before collapsing. On the ice, a stretcher was swiftly brought out.
Booth has no recollection of the hit or of his stay in the hospital. The memory of waking up in the ambulance that drove him away from the stadium and experiencing an enormous wave of terror is etched in his mind. He had no idea where he was. His legs and chest were both restrained. He grabbed his team trainer by the collar of his shirt and yelled for him to go.
“It felt as though I had been possessed. I was attempting to dislodge the seat belts “Booth recently told ESPN.
Since then, he has witnessed the hit many times. People will play it for him on their phones and ask, macabrely, “This you?”
The on-ice referees gave Richards a five-minute major for interfering and a game misconduct. After one day in the hospital, Booth was discharged. He “suffered a concussion but no other significant injuries,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Booth would go on to play six more NHL seasons and nine more professionally. But, as he said, he was never the same following the hit. There were concerns with cognition. Due to the severe impact of the hit, there was also a lingering reluctance in his game that never really went away.
“It’s natural for people to feel that they’re the ones who are being victimized. That something occurred to me that I didn’t deserve. Saying it’s Mike’s or the league’s fault is the easy way out, in my opinion “Booth said. “That’s something I’m trying to avoid. It occurred, and it was awful, because it altered the trajectory of my career.”
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Shanahan joined a “blue ribbon group” of former players turned executives, including Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman, and Joe Nieuwendyk, in March 2011 to improve the supplementary punishment process and investigate methods to expand Rule 48 to encompass additional head knocks.
“At the time, the most challenging thing was figuring out what was going to be accidental head contact and what was going to be criminal head contact,” Shanahan said. “It seems to be a simple task. But it was more difficult than that, as the rule’s changes over the following several years demonstrated.”
A modified Rule 48 was implemented in 2011-12. To broaden the rule’s applicability, the phrases “lateral” and “blindside” were eliminated. Rather than “and/or,” the regulation emphasized that the head must be targeted as well as the primary site of contact. There was also new wording questioning whether the player who took the hit had positioned himself in a vulnerable position “just before to or concurrently with the blow” or whether head contact “on an otherwise valid body check” was inevitable.
“The terms ‘lateral’ and ‘blindside’ didn’t mean it was OK to hit a person in the head like that; rather, they said we wouldn’t care how a player was struck in the head. It might be at any angle or in any position “Shanahan said.
To make things easy for the referees, an illegal check to the head was now either a minor penalty or a match penalty, rather than a major penalty.
The NHL handed 13 bans for illegal head checks totaling 43 games in the first season of both the NHL Department of Player Safety and the updated Rule 48. James Wisniewski was the recipient of the most games (12). It was a regulation that resulted in suspensions for both repeat offenders and outstanding players.
In 2013, the rule’s efficacy was brought into doubt. Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, co-authored a research that found Rule 48 had no effect on concussion incidence in the NHL. The report was eventually cited as evidence in a class-action lawsuit filed by a number of former NHL players who alleged the league was irresponsible in its concussion prevention. The lawsuit was resolved in 2018, although the NHL did not admit culpability for any of the plaintiffs’ allegations as part of the agreement.
“Part of it has to do with how the regulation is worded. Part of it has to do with how the regulation is applied. Part of it has to do with the rule’s sanctions. And part of it is that concussions may occur from other sources, such as fighting, which is still permitted “In 2013, Cusimano told the Canadian Press.
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The regulation was revised again and again. The players asked that the term “primary point of contact” in the regulation be altered to “major point of contact” for the 2013-14 season. The term “targeted” was replaced with “avoidable head impact,” and intent was removed from the necessary condition.
“Any time anything in our terminology puzzled the managers or the players, we’d change it,” Shanahan said. “The removal of the word ‘targeting’ was supposed to imply that a strike might have been unintentional, but irresponsible. That a player with no prior experience may have made a risky move.”
When asked about the modification, Damian Echevarrieta, vice president of NHL player safety, chuckled. “I like Shanny, but when he says things like ‘unintentionally targeted,’ I have to correct him and inform him that the term ‘target’ implies purpose. It’s impossible to inadvertently target anything! “he said
Rule 48 appeared essentially the same in 2016 as it does now, highlighting the illegality of reckless or preventable head blows but also addressing the subtlety of an opponent’s body posture at the time of the impact. It’s an unlawful check to the head if the head is the major point of contact and the contact could have been avoided by delivering the hit in a different method or not at all, according to the regulation.
Needless to say, all of these rule changes, as well as the rule itself, came with a learning curve.
The re-education program
Players, coaches, and club executives have struggled to grasp Rule 48 and its implementation over the previous decade, particularly during early hearings. The customary counterarguments from players and teams were described as “victim blaming” by one source familiar with the proceedings, since they talked more about the opponent absorbing the blow than the hit itself.
Shanahan remarked, “The first couple of years were incredibly challenging.” “‘This is a legal hit,’ players and coaches would claim during the hearings. You have to admit that that was six months ago. But that is no longer the case. That was a significant change.”
The films generated by the department aided in teaching, but not always for the NHL’s most experienced players.
“The films were not intended for the league’s players at the time. They didn’t even bother to look at them. We were producing these for children who were having fun “Shanahan said.
The rookie orientation camps, which began in the last decade, were one of the most important aspects in the player education process. The Department of Player Safety meets with top prospects for an hour in between sessions where they learn about social media etiquette and get financial guidance, and discusses the complexities of things like Rule 48. Shanahan hopes they’ve heard of it before.
“The next generation will be here in approximately four or five years. These movies would have an influence on these youngsters, who were between the ages of 14 and 16, because when they got to the NHL, “Shanahan said.
The issue remains as to what Rule 48 will entail for future generations.
The near future
Chris Nowinski is the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preventing concussions and CTE. He’s been a vocal critic of the NHL’s handling of both. He did, however, say that Rule 48 was a net gain for the league.
“We all know that penalties can be used to influence player conduct, and they are a terrific method to do it. Rule 48, as well as the educational movies that were made available, were very beneficial in making the game safer for individuals who had catastrophic head injuries.”
Nowinski believes the NHL is still not being honest with its players about the long-term consequences of concussions in contact sports. “Educating players about what they’re getting into is the appropriate thing to do,” he added.
Nowinski regarded Rule 48 as a natural progression for the NHL, and one that would benefit the league in the long run.
“Highlight videos were the strikes to the head ten years ago. Or they were called out and embarrassed the league. As a result, it’s a pretty apparent public relations tactic to pull them out of the game “he said “It’s about aesthetics, but it’s also about defending and keeping your stars in the game.”
He wonders whether the next step will be a complete prohibition on all head contact.
“They’re not selling tickets based on headshots,” Nowinski added. “Rule 48 demonstrated that you may alter your behavior. Eliminating headshots might boost the NHL’s popularity. It’s possible that it’ll be less well-liked. It’s a pity no one wants to give it a go.”
There’s always been a fear that outlawing all head contact would drastically alter the game’s dynamics. Rule 48, on the other hand, has the potential to go even farther, if not that far.
“I believe that more hits will become unlawful than are presently regarded illegal hits,” one NHL insider stated.
According to Holland, there hasn’t been much conversation lately among the GMs regarding a blanket ban on head contact.
“I believe it has calmed down as a result of Rule 48’s success. But, at the end of the day, any law like that will be difficult to implement. The game is played at a breakneck pace. There’s a physical aspect to it. There will always be some head traumas “he said “With the players’ education and the rule revisions, I believe we are in a good spot right now. However, if there are too many individuals harmed in three years, we may have to reconsider. I can’t predict what the future holds for you.”
While a complete prohibition on head contact is unlikely, Parros believes that one element of checking may be covered by Rule 48: strikes when the head forcefully collides with the boards.
“We’re always examining and studying our game, how it’s played, and how it might be enhanced or controlled in the most effective way imaginable. We were seeking to eliminate such open-ice blows that ‘picked’ or ‘targeted’ the head when Rule 48 was initially adopted. I believe our efforts have had positive results in this area over time “he said “Looking forward, many of the impacts we observe involve head contact in and along the boards, rather than on the open ice. We’re seeing more secondary contact with the glass and boards, and we’ll keep an eye on it.”
Whatever the next incarnation of Regulation 48 looks like, it’s apparent that the league is safer now than it was a decade ago, with the rule removing many of the game’s formerly frequent disastrous impacts.
Would David Booth’s career have been different if it had existed in 2009?
“It’s a difficult question to respond to. It’s impossible to say what may have transpired. How many times have we been rescued from danger without realizing it? “Booth said. “But there’s no denying that it was good. Some of the hits that used to happen were out of this world.”
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