New NHL rules evident early in year

We are a quarter of the way through the hockey calendar, and the 2011-12 NHL season has already seen some significant changes in terms of game play.

Since I last wrote about the growing dangers in hockey Sept. 22, the governing body that rules over America’s most dangerous sport has taken some of the harsh realities into consideration and reacted accordingly.

For starters, the senior vice president of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, has done a commendable job in regards to both enforcing and explaining recent regulatory changes.

The NHL has updated their rulebook significantly this season, in areas such as goalie interference — an extremely important issue considering the goalies are the players most at risk – boarding, and perhaps most importantly, illegal checks to the head.

Rule 48, as it’s known, defines illegal contact to the head as “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”

“However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered,” the rule reads.

In case hockey lingo isn’t your thing, this rule explains that a player cannot go for the head of another player as the main point of contact, which shows that the NHL is serious about preventing concussions and other serious head injuries that can lead to lifelong problems on and off the ice.

However, the rule isn’t entirely black and white — players who purposely put themselves into a position to receive a hit to the head will be less protected by the governing officials, and the attacking player may get off with a lighter, or no, punishment.

If a player who takes a head check doesn’t see their aggressor get punished, then they will be less likely to position themselves for a hit like this in future, reducing the chances of such hits on both sides.

In case this is too confusing, Shanahan releases a video after each serious and illegal hit, breaking down the play from multiple angles, and explaining exactly why the action was illegal, along with discussing the corresponding punishment.

These videos are known as “Shanabans” or “dropping the Shanahammer,” and are especially ironic considering that just a few years ago, Shanahan was among the league’s leading hitter.

Still, any violations to the rules are clearly expressed in a way that all parties involved can clearly understand what not to do, enabling the game to run more safely and cleanly.

Yet even the funniest “Shanaban” pales in comparison to the most exciting hockey news of the season — the prodigal son has returned, and has already scored two goals in seven games. Yes, Sidney Crosby is back, and despite barely being back for two weeks, he’s already in fourth for voting in the 2012 All-Star game.

While many, including myself, think that this is beyond unfair, it’s impossible to argue that Crosby isn’t the poster child for the NHL; they may have created that image, and Pittsburgh Penguins fan or not, he is hockey’s “wonderkid.” His return was frustrating for all of the teams in the Eastern Conference,  but is a positive sign for the NHL.

The changes that the league has made to better protect the players have clearly made an impact.

Crosby’s return can only boost fan interest and ticket sales, which already saw a moderate increase thanks to the  NBA lockout, and the return of the annual Winter Classic, this time pitting the New York Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers. Whether or not you’re a Crosby fan, his return is definitely a positive for the league as a whole.

Despite these drastic changes, Crosby’s return proves that the sport of hockey hasn’t completely changed. If you are still drawn to NHL games because of the fast-paced action and the fights, that’s still present — look no further than the Ryan Miller-Milan Lucic fight and the scuffle that followed in the next Bruins-Sabres matchup.

Hockey hasn’t become fundamentally different; it has become a cleaner version of itself — something that was desperately needed after such a tragic summer.

While it may be far too early to tell who will be hoisting the Stanley Cup next May, one thing is for certain — hockey is cleaner, safer and just as exciting as ever before. For the safety of the players, may the Shanabans continue and may the lack of concussions continue.