The Audacity of Appealing

It’s been a month since Raffi Torres prematurely ended Marian Hossa’s season with a flying elbow to the face. In a nice bit of symmetry, Team Torres brought his appeal to the NHL exactly a month from hit to appeal. With Marian Hossa struggling to pull his marbles together at home in Slovakia, some people are wondering: should Torres even be able to appeal while Marian Hossa struggles to pull his mind together? That question was meant to be rhetorical.

No one here is saying that Torres shouldn’t be punished. The man will simultaneously serve as an example for five different bullet points when the league explains its supplementary discipline process next year. If you hit someone in the head, you’ll be suspended. If you leave your feet to make a check, you may be suspended. If you violently, deliberately hit a player after he’s released the puck, you may be suspended. If you cause an injury, you may be suspended and if you’re a repeat offender, you have a better chance of receiving a stiffer punishment.

That’s right—he delivered one hit and a plethora of examples. A few more of these hits and the preseason video sessions with players will be a lot shorter.

The question isn’t whether Torres broke the rules. That much should be obvious by now. The question is whether Torres—or any other habitual/gross offender—should always have the right to appeal his suspension. After he was made him into pariah, Torres had the audacity to appeal the length of his suspension. Let that soak in: he’s not appealing the fact that he was suspended; he just thinks the 25-game penalty is extreme for the punishable offense.

When word came out Torres planned on appealing his 25-game suspension, there were a number of fans in Chicago questioning whether Torres’ actions and history prohibited him from the normal appellate process. There’s a newsflash—some of fans in Chicago went a little overboard.

Here’s the bottom line: Can a player go so far overboard that he loses the right to petition an appeal?

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It took Marian Hossa about three weeks to talk to the media after he left the United Center on a stretcher. The season was over and the beat writers weren’t able to talk to Hossa in the exit meetings, but he had an excuse this season. Nonetheless, the Blackhawks set up a conference call for Marian Hossa to talk to a handful of reporters over a conference call from his native Slovakia. At this point, no one had any idea how he was progressing since incurring Raffi Torres’ wrath.

torres hit on hossa

Hossa is still battling the aftereffects of his concussion (Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

When he was released from the hospital after the trauma, he was told “to spend a few days sitting in a darkened room followed by a week of being at home mostly sleeping.” He only remembers a few seconds of the hit and the rest of the night has been reduced to a few scrambled seconds that he’s tried to piece together like a jigsaw puzzle. He remembers a few seconds of being on the ice, nothing from the locker room, part of the ambulance ride, and waking up in the hospital. When you hear how a sport can reduce a human to this—the sporting part of it isn’t so important anymore.

Forget preparing for next season, Hossa said he isn’t going to do much more than simply walking until June. Right now, this has very little to do with hockey for Hossa—and everything to do with his “real life” away from the rink.

The toughest part for Hossa is that there’s nothing he could have done differently if he expects to be a professional hockey player. It was a normal play that happens over and over throughout the game. A pass received. A pass delivered. A puck tipped by an opponent. These are the things that give the game its pace, its flow, and nightly familiarity. Yet unexpectedly, that’s when Hossa had the lights turned off.

Hall of Famer Ken Dryden explains it perfectly:

“It was the perfect moment for a brain-rattling hit. Hossa didn’t see Torres coming. He had no reason to see him coming. He had no reason to look for him at all. He didn’t have the puck. He had every right to assume he was in no danger; at no risk. So he let down his guard, the guard you keep up when you have the puck. It was Torres’s moment.”

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It’s important to cut through some of the pervasive revisionist history. While the vast majority of the hockey world thought it was an ugly hit, it wasn’t unanimous. Lest we forget—the play didn’t even receive a penalty from either of the referees on the ice. Torres himself said that he thought it was “a hockey play” after the game. Phoenix Coyotes broadcaster Tyson Nash was defending the hit on live television as the hit was replayed in super horrific, super slow-mo commenting, “as clean of a hit as you’re going to get.”

Obviously, Nash was wrong (and probably caught up in the moment), the officials were incompetent, and Torres was a bit biased. But if anyone can say it was grey area play immediately after the play happens live, then the player should be able to have his case heard again. It’s the whole “reasonable doubt” thing that we love so much.

Let’s put this suspension in its proper historical context. It’s the longest suspension handed down from Brendan Shanahan and the third longest in NHL history. The only two suspensions that were more severe were the lifetime ban given to Billy Coutu for going after two referees in 1927 and Chris Simon’s 30 game suspension for using his skate to stomp on Jarkko Ruutu. Those are the only two suspensions that are longer than Torres’ 25 game vacation. Marty McSorley for going Albert Pujlos upside Donald Brashear’s head? 23 games. Todd Bertuzzi for knocking out Steve Moore? He only ended up missing 20 games. Eddie Shore for trying to practically trying to kill Ace Bailey with his stick? 16 games.

You get the idea. Torres’ suspension has graduated into folklore territory. We have a guy stomping on an opponent with a skate, another assaulting referees, and now Torres delivering an illegal body check in the playoffs. Make no mistake about it—it was a dirty hit and Torres was an easy target; but which one of those doesn’t belong with the others?

The kicker here is that Torres isn’t even appealing that he was suspended. The crux of the argument isn’t that Torres was given supplementary discipline, it’s that he and the Players’ Association feel that the suspension is excessive and arbitrary.”

The question shouldn’t be “why is he appealing?” The question should be, “how can Torres lose his appeal?” Then again, with the way supplemental discipline issues are handled, who knows, maybe Bettman will increase the suspension. Nothing surprises hockey fans anymore.

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Torres was a hero for the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final

Ten months ago, Raffi Torres was one of the more intriguing unrestricted free agents on the market. After proving to be a valuable member of the Vancouver Canucks during their Stanley Cup Final run, there was no question that he was going to have his share of suitors when he hit the open market on July 1. But this wasn’t anything new for Torres.

Just about every NHL team acknowledges his value to an organization—which may explain why he’s bounced around like a ping-pong ball since the lockout. It’s no surprise that ten months ago, he was looking for a little more security than the usual one-year contract.

Steve Reich of O2K Sports Management told Overtime’s Mike Colligan:

“In Raffi’s case, since he left Edmonton when he helped them get to the Finals, we thought we had a pretty good fit in Columbus and were a little bit disappointed it didn’t work out there but it didn’t and obviously Buffalo he was dinged up and hurt when he went there but it was certainly not a successful fit there.

It was a good fit in Vancouver and it was just one of these cases where, again, we couldn’t agree and the money that they had for that role was markedly less than what we figured free agent value would be. I think in their minds they thought we’d be coming back to them on July 2 and take a similar deal to what we had taken the prior year, whereas in our mind that was a year to prove that it was a good fit and it was. I think he brought to them an element that they still need. It was a right fit, but as you said, at some point you need to make a choice.

In his case, with the way he plays and his history, getting a second year was critical to him. We were looking for a place where we could get closer to what we perceived his value to be and also get a second year. Phoenix stepped up and did it and there are certainly no regrets there.”

From the Coyotes perspective, they were excited about the opportunity to sign a player like Torres. After addressing their goaltending needs, Phoenix GM Don Maloney explained that he thought Torres was “a really good ‘value’ signing” for the organization. He continued: “He’s a hard player, aggressive, and should give us some more weight on our left side.”

Torres wanted a team to commit to him for a couple years and the Coyotes loved what the bang-for-the-buck value that Torres represented. It sounded like a match made in Free Agent Frenzy Heaven.

But there had to be a reason that teams would only commit to Torres and his edgy game for a single season at a time. What held teams back from keeping him around for a few years? Were they comfortable attaching their name to a guy who had more questionable hits than Milli Vanilli?

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Cooke received a 17-game suspension last season (Icon SMI)

What does the NHLPA do in a situation like this? The problem for the Players’ Association is that they have to different types of players within their membership that they are mandated to represent at all times. On one hand, they are expected to represent players like Torres, Andy Sutton, and the artist formerly known as Matt Cooke. On the other hand, the Players’ Association is simultaneously required to stand for players like the Kings’ Willie Mitchell and Blues forward Andy McDonald.

McDonald has already spoken out about how the league needed to be tougher with suspensions because what they were doing wasn’t getting the message across:

“On the suspension part of it, there’s really not a deterrent. If guys were suspended for 20 games, then I think things would change. I think guys would all of a sudden be cautious when it came to elbowing somebody in the head, or hit somebody when he’s unsuspecting or in a vulnerable position. It’s a difficult issue. I think the league is trying to get it right, but it’s a work in progress.”

Mitchell shares the sentiment that the league needs to get more aggressive:

“… it’s just not Raffi. It doesn’t matter who it is. If you’re a repeat offender, it’s about time they got aggressive. I give Brendan (Shanahan) and the league compliments, because they’ve done a good job in the regular season. I think, in the playoffs, they maybe got away from it early on, and they set a precedent that was tough to get away from. If you look at our series, with Cliffy [Kyle Clifford], it was kind of light. I felt it was a little bit light, in my opinion, but maybe there are more pressures this time of year. I kind of think it’s almost a five, 10, 25 thing. First offense is five, because sometimes it happens, where guys aren’t known for that style of play, so you don’t want to say 25. But maybe a five, 10, 25. I’d like to see that. Then, past that, put them out half a season. There’s no need for that in the game.”

Here in lies the problem. There are players like McDonald and Mitchell who are in favor of harsh supplemental discipline to remove cheap headshots from the game. And they aren’t alone. There are a significant number of players around the NHL that wants the league to take a hard line stance on headshots and suspensions.

At the same time, the Players’ Association is appealing a ruling from Brendan Shanahan on Torres’ behalf because the punishment was too harsh. You know, exactly the harsh type of punishments some of its membership wants the league to hand out.

So what does Marian Hossa think about Raffi Torres? After all, he’s the victim and if anyone deserves to be clamoring for a lengthy suspension these days, it’s Hossa.

“(Torres) is paying for it right now,” Hossa said. “Hopefully, he’s going to learn from it. You don’t want to see this stuff in hockey. I was angry, but what can you do?”

Two sides—one incredibly messed up coin.

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Brendan Shanahan: “I tell him as long as you do what you think is right, the process will be fine.”

Yeah, good luck on getting anywhere with that appeal, Mr. NHL Hockey Player. Oh, it gets better. Check out the Coyotes official statement from GM Don Maloney:

“I want to thank Brendan Shanahan and his staff for their thorough review of this incident,” said Maloney. “The ruling is very severe for Raffi and our Hockey Club. Raffi plays a hard, physical game yet this contact crossed the line on what is acceptable in our game today. We hope Marian Hossa makes a full and speedy recovery as we all enjoy watching him perform. The Club accepts the NHL’s decision and will focus on our game tonight.”

It certainly doesn’t sound like the Coyotes organization was upset with the decision. They accepted the decision, thanked the league for punishing their player, and stopped just short of sending Shanahan a message that read: “Ur my favorite! xoxo” Torres must have been happy to see that his current employer had his back.

The problem for Torres is that this issue is much bigger than just an illegal hit in Game 3 between the Coyotes and Blackhawks. With the upcoming CBA negotiations this summer, the appeals process is going to be front and center for the players. While owners and the league have no problem with the current system, players around the league have criticized today’s supplemental discipline process because there’s no legitimate recourse after a punishment is handed down.

(Tom Turk / Overtime)

Do you think that Gary Bettman—the man who gave Brendan Shanahan his current job—would overturn a severe punishment that he (and the league owners) have asked him to implement? The players certainly don’t.

An unnamed player that was suspended earlier this year said that he wished there was a system in place that contained “a guideline that you can’t just appeal every single suspension,” and admitted that if there were a more equitable appeals process in place, he “definitely would have taken advantage of it.” We’re talking about a player that was actually suspended and did not appeal because he thought it was a pointless waste of time.

That doesn’t sound like a system that is working for both parties. All we have to do is look towards the NFL for the next step in this dance. New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is suing NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell because he wants a fair process when he appeals his one-year ban from the NFL. He doesn’t think he can get a legit hearing without the court system.

How long before an NHL player follows the same route?

The system is flawed. We know it’s flawed. But is Bettman really going to overrule Shanahan’s ruling? Probably not.

So where does that leave Raffi Torres? Should he decline his right to an appeal because he has LITTLE chance of winning? Should he decline his right to an appeal because there are other members in the Players’ Association that are applauding the stiff punishment?

2 Comments

  1. Great article, one of the better ones I’ve seen on this topic. One problem I noticed, the “Torres must have been happy to see that his current employer had his back,” paragraph. In this day and age, coaches are fined big time for speaking out on just the officiating, speaking against Shanahan and his rulings would only bring the same outcome, perhaps bigger repercussions and more negative press at a time in the season when its not needed. Hence the simple, short and to the point press release. I do feel Torres’ suspension was harsh, not because I’m a fan of the Coyotes but because of how easy of a target he was for the NHL. Take the shots hes made on other players and compare them to Ovechkin. See whos the dirtier player then see who gets the hammer dropped on them. The system is messed up, its the same system that tells the fans who to like and who not to like. Thats why Torres will sit for as long as he will and continue to gather haters. And as far as Nash’s comments go, something to make note of, in the days that he played Raffi’s hit won’t have been looked at twice. Could be the reason why he said what he said.That being said, hope nothing but the best for Hossa!

  2. Pingback: John Tortorella's Abrasiveness A Blessing In Disguise for the Media

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