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The problem with blindside hits right now: they're not illegal

The NHL rulebook hasn't contained the term "blindside" since 2010-11. You can't enforce an infraction that doesn't exist. Is it time for the competition committee to intervene?

We watched Jonathan Marchessault writhe on the ice. Most of us didn’t like the hit. But what could be done about it?

Technically, OK, the monstrous body check the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson threw on the Vegas Golden Knights’ Marchessault in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final was illegal. Marchessault wasn’t playing the puck. The hit was late – not egregiously late, but late enough to warrant a penalty. Wilson earned two minutes for interference, while Marchessault was off to the quiet room, where he was revealed to be OK.

So Wilson did something wrong and was officially punished for it. But the climate on social media suggested most people watching the game wanted a stiffer punishment for Wilson. It was a blindside hit, after all. Marchessault had no idea Wilson was coming. It sure looked deliberate and predatory.

But the hit wasn’t so late that it was unmistakably predatory. It was at the tail end of a play involving the puck. Dirty, yes, but evidently not so dirty that Wilson warranted supplemental discipline from the Department of Player Safety. And with no suspension in the cards, Wilson’s history as a repeat offender didn’t factor in, nor would a Marchessault injury had he been unable to finish the game. Those two pieces of information can only lengthen a suspension, not determine a decision to suspend or not suspend.

So Wilson walks. He’s a free man. And a lot of people aren’t happy with that. Unfortunately, this is yet another case in which we should point fingers not at Wilson, not at the DOPS, but at the rulebook and the CBA. We can hate the blindside hit all we want, but there’s a little problem: blindside hits are not illegal. There is no language in the CBA prohibiting blindside hits. So we can’t punish that element of Wilson’s collision with Marchessault.

Interestingly, blindside hits haven’t always been legal. They existed in the rulebook for a fleeting moment: the 2010-11 season. As a result of the vicious 2010 headshot from Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, the league amended the rulebook to create Rule 48.1 for illegal check to the head. There had previously been no language prohibiting the specific targeting of the head, meaning Cooke’s hit was legal when it happened, so the change reacted to that to introduce the headshot rule prohibiting hits like Cooke’s in the future.

At the time of the change, the language for Rule 48 stated, a “lateral or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.” After that season, the rule was altered to make all targeted headshots illegal. The intent was good – protecting any deliberate blows to the head even if they came head-on – but the change created an accidental loophole, removing the terms “lateral” and “blindside.”

The modern rulebook thus has no mention of blindsides. Seriously, use the “find” option in the PDF and the word doesn’t exist. Rule 48 still puts a lot of responsibility of the player getting hit, too, stating, “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.” In other words, keep your head on a swivel, kid. Don’t admire a pass.

The rulebook thus doesn’t protect the players as much as it could or should – particularly on the blindside hits that have no head contact at all. And we know enough about concussions today to understand they can happen without any head contact. Often the whipping motion of the neck causes the concussion, as the brain bounces inside the skull, and nothing makes a player’s head whip like an unexpected blindside hit.

So we can call Wilson dirty in an unofficial sense – but the blindside hits aren’t currently illegal. Might we see the language of the rulebook revisited to create a crackdown on blindsides in seasons to come? It’s certainly possible. The goalie interference talk stole all the headlines at the recent GM meetings, but a league source tells THN that blindside hits have been an important topic, too. The league’s GMs are legitimately concerned about it. So don’t be surprised if blindside hits pop up at the next competition committee meeting.

Until then, though, players must have panoramic vision every time they take the ice, as the rulebook won’t protect them from the Tom Wilsons of the world.


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