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Fight etiquette, player safety among hot topics as GMs meet

By Kristen Shilton,

2023-03-14

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MANALAPAN, Fla. -- The NHL GM meetings moved into their second day Tuesday, and discussions deepened around key agenda topics with potential to impact rule changes down the road.

Managers spent Monday morning in breakout sessions dialoguing about fights after clean hits, the implications of expanded video review on coaches' challenges and increasing protective equipment on players. The entire GM contingency met together Tuesday to share in more dialogue that, while productive, still has further to go.

"I don't know that we left with any real consensus on things," said Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, speaking after the day's sessions ended at Eau Palm Beach resort. "I think a lot of the managers are in favor of wanting to make sure you get things right with video review and stuff like that, but I think we have to be very, very conscious about the unintended consequences of those kinds of things. There's going to be some deeper dives into a lot of the points that we discussed. Hockey operations gauges the temperature of that and if there's good appetite [to talk more], then they continue to work on it. And I think that's where we left it."

One touchpoint that drew attention before the meetings was how to best police retaliatory fights after clean hits. New York Rangers captain Jacob Trouba is just one example of a player who has delivered proper -- if painful -- strikes on the ice and then been forced into defending himself from the target's teammate in an ensuing scrum.

Although it's often hits against star players that draw the most ire from fans and coverage by the media, the GMs' expanded conversation this week went beyond how to protect everyone on the ice, not just top-tier skaters. The other implication with fights and hits in general is how they're interpreted in a broader sense, something GMs and players alike are sensitive to.

"It's a real tough one to discuss," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. "Because, if there's a clean hit against anyone on your team and your team doesn't do anything about it, you get heavily criticized for it. If you do do something about it, you take a penalty, and you get criticized for that. I think people use your reaction to clean hits to judge whether your team is tough or not. And that's the hard part is we can talk about the rules and everything, but there's also the noise that comes after because people are looking for indicators of what your team is about."

And it's not as if GMs were advocating for less physicality in the game. The main consideration is safety, and part of that is allowing the players themselves to be involved in when -- and how -- fights come about.

"Good, clean hits are part of the game," said Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion. "It's been in the game for over 100 years. I think the players police themselves pretty well. I think there's a certain amount of respect between the players. I think they understand if it's a good, clean hit, it's part of the game. When the hits are not clean, obviously player safety comes in, or the referee within the game will call the penalty. The rules are great. Just apply them, and let the game go on."

That same thought process could apply to the topic of expanded video review on coaches' challenges, too. Dorion noted that one of hockey's great strengths is being a fast-paced game; too much emphasis on increasing reviews will hinder that. The onus should be on making a correct call the first time. But it's not always that simple.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh, they should just get it right,' which is what every general manager says, especially when it goes wrong against your team," Dubas said. "Mistakes happen. And it's emotional. I think it needs to become very narrow in scope in terms of what can be challenged, what can't be. And I think everyone in the room, they want it to be as right as possible, but not by doing thousands of challenges a year. So [it's] really [about] narrowing the scope on things that are definitively right or wrong versus more of the subjective plays where it really becomes difficult to judge."

One video all the GMs saw Monday pertained to increasing protective equipment. Debate has ramped up on that end after Edmonton Oilers forward Evander Kane 's wrist was cut by the skate blade of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pat Maroon in November when Maroon hit Kane into the boards. Kane was rushed from the arena to the hospital and remained sidelined for 10 weeks.

The severity of what happened -- and the potential long-term implications -- has sparked debate about whether players should have to protect themselves with more gear. That's been an ongoing conversation with guys themselves, as many express concern about added layers impacting their game.

"The video they showed us yesterday was really eye-opening for me. I think it was eye-opening for a lot of GMs," Dorion said. "When you watch that Evander Kane injury [and others like it], you see the skates are sharper than they've ever been; they cut deeper. I know players were talking about maybe they were a bit warmer [with more on], they weren't comfortable. When you try something new, it's always uncomfortable, but you get used to ... I think it's just an adjustment for the players to do, and I think when you think about people's health and safety, I think that has to come first above everything else."

More GMs expect dialogue on all fronts to continue after their meetings wrap up Wednesday morning. Where the bulk of their talks ultimately will lead is still to be determined.

"With 300 games left or so [overall in the regular season], it's hard to make changes," Cheveldayoff said. "You don't make changes right now. You [have] some discussions, you make some recommendations, and see where it goes."

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