NHL discipline boss just doesn't get it

I’ve been noting the National Hockey League’s fundamental cluelessness regarding the state of its game for some time now. I suspect I’m not the only one who’s voted with his wallet, either – I’ve spent barely a fraction as much on hockey, as much as I love it, since the league’s impotent response to Todd Bertuzzi’s attempted murder of Steve Moore a few years back, and that isn’t likely to change until the front office gets serious about ridding the game of its gratuitous thuggery.

Now we have more evidence that they still don’t get it. Let’s pose the situation as a multiple choice question.

Q: Which is worse?

a) Taking a blind-side shot at the back of an opponent’s head in a way that inflicts a concussion, which more and more research suggests poses the threat of long-term neurological damage.

b) Making an obscene gesture – specifically, miming the act of fellatio – at an opponent.

Which is it? Violence resulting in potentially serious and lasting injury, or juvenile locker-room taunting? Hmmm.

The answer is … trick question. In the mind of the NHL’s alleged disciplinarian, Gary Bettman, the two are equivalent. In case A, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was assessed a two-game suspension for a dangerous head shot. In case B, Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski drew an identical two-game vacation for impersonating a 7th grader.

No system is ever going to be perfect, especially in a sport where the kinds of behavior to be discouraged include everything from “social” offenses like Wisniewski’s to dangerous, violent conduct like we see nearly every night. I used to officiate soccer, and it griped me to no end that the same penalty – a yellow card – applied to both dangerous play and unsportsmanlike conduct (and, in some cases, to procedural offenses such as kicking a ball away in order to deprive the other team of a scoring advantage). So I understand the realities facing officials, rulemakers and league personnel.

But I’m not asking for a perfect system – merely one that acknowledges that there’s a difference between being an asshole and a being a felon.

We don’t know for sure whether on-ice homicide would inspire greater outrage in Mr. Bettman than, say, mooning the crowd. But we don’t see any evidence that would tell us which way to bet, do we?

11 replies »

  1. Amen. The biggest problem I see with the NHL’s system is that since the Bertuzzi incident is that the NHL’s disciplinarians seem to try and quantify a player’s “intent” when meting out punishments, and then also consider the end result, as opposed to the potential danger a play actually poses .

    In the case of Hjalmarsson, the guy he hit did wind up with a nasty cut and a minor concussion. So in the NHL’s eyes, Hjalmarsson, had never done anything like this before, and he didn’t hurt Pominville that badly, so two games it is.

    If they really want to remove hits like Hjalmarsson’s from the game, the penalties involved need to have more teeth – make the players take responsiblity for on-ice actions. A tiered system for repeat offenders like the one they have in place could work, but that initial penalty needs to be more severe to deter players from ever winding up in front of the discipline panel.

    Intent shouldn’t matter – carelessness is no excuse. End result should be considered, but it should not be the most important factor. Potential danger you place your opponents in needs to be the key factor in discipline. The hit the other night, and many like it have the potential to end a player’s career, and even end a life. Granted, potential danger is hard to quantify, but one thing the NHL has done well lately is educate players about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Every player knows not to hit a player if you are looking at the numbers on their jersey. Hell, youth leagues are putting stop signs on the back of players jersey as a reminder.

    In the end, the NHL needs to do a better job at enforcing its own rules. An 8 game suspension (10% of the season, and therefore 10% of the player’s salary) needs to be the minimum for hits like Hjalmarssons. And the money needs to be put into a fund for players hurt by dirty hits because eventually, someone is going to wind up paralyzed.

  2. I’ve always thought that the proper approach was both/and. You have a fairly hard set of penalties that are based on two criteria: intent and outcome. On the intent side you have three tiers: malice aforethought, reckless disregard and accident. On the outcome side you look at how bad it turned out. So a guy gets hurt and is out for ten games. If the hit that did it was an intent to maim, that’s worse than reckless endangerment. Both draw hefty penalties, but the malice gets you more. And so on.

    Where the malice is concerned, at least, you assess the penalty once the injured player returns. That is, the guilty player sits as long as the victim does, and THEN soaks the 15-game penalty after that. In the Bertuzzi case, I’d have assessed at least a season. So he’d be banned until Moore came back, plus a season. Which means he’d never play hockey in the NHL again, pretty much.

    I like your recidivism standard here, though. So the optimal solution would add a third criterion – has this player done it before?

  3. First off, the recidivism standard is not mine. The NHL does have it in place. If Hjalmarsson had been suspened for endangering another player before, he likely would have gotten 5 games this time instead of two. I don’t mind this type of standard, but I don’t think enough is being done to first time offenders to deter them from that first offense. As I alluded to earlier – in my mind it would be 8 games first offense, second would be 20 and third would be a season. One more and you’re out of the league.

    I like the way you have the intent matrix makes a laid out. The problem with the NHL’s current system is that there is little difference between reckless endangerment (Hjalmarsson) and and accident for first time offenders. Players who haven’t done something before are typically given a two-game suspension for any offense. The other side to this story is I have seen players suspended (minimally, of course) for true “accident” plays just because they were suspended in the past.

    I have thought a lot about making the offender sit for as long as the injured player does +. With the nature of concussion injuries, that could be a very long time. The NHL will never do that because their biggest star is known to play fast and loose with the hitting rules, and they wouldn’t want to lose him back to Russia because he is suspended indefinitely. Plus going back to the nature of concussion injuries, the first time a guy who has a concussion history misses extended time for his 5th concussion, the whole system winds up in curt or arbitration trying to determine who caused what.

    I don’t know the answers, I just know the current system sucks. Here’s a supposedly satirical take on how the system works. Unfortunately, it hits REAL close to home.

  4. In a related story, the NHL just tried to friend me on Myspace. Myspace?!?! That’s how behind the times they are.

  5. Concussions, body blows, cuts, “recidivism”, and return of the “injured”–all these elements are not part of a “sport”. They are components of violence, pure and simple. Gratuitous thuggery is also accurate, played-out to pander to people with psychological issues bordering on inhuman behaviors. Hockey has enough heft to its structure and content to be clean of all but incidental violence and then the skills involved in playing the game would be elegant and worth watching. In its present form, it is often savage and ferocious when it could be a celebration of individual talent and cooperation between team members. What a disappointment as I grow older and realize what damage body checks and all the rest can cause, I turn to less violence and more team play in the sports that I play and watch.

  6. Hockey is a physical sport. Every player in the NHL knows exactly what the risks are of playing professional hockey. These kind of incidents happen at every level and in every country where hockey is played. Each player has experienced or witnessed serious injuries, fights, and amateur taunting throughout their career. If a player makes it to the NHL he knows whats waiting for him. It was there choice. Oh yea, and yes the NHL should punish their players in a more consistent and harsh manner.

  7. @Phil: So, by that logic, we shouldn’t fine or shut down mining corporations that fail to abide by safety codes for their miners? It only sounds melodramatic until one of these players dies from a hit.

    Yeah, hockey is a physical sport. There are risks and the players know it. The issue here though is that the league said they were going to take cheap shots to the backs of players heads more seriously this season. But apparently what they meant was: business as usual, but we’re really going to take the miming of sexual acts more seriously.