Call For Consistency: The Department of Player Safety’s Bad Rap

As May approaches, so does the annual cry of jilted NHL fans. It seems no matter who makes the playoffs each year, one thing remains constant: The Department of Player Safety (DoPS) and their seemingly consistent inconsistency when handing down suspensions. The most recent outcry comes from the Detroit Red Wings and their fans, after the league announced that defenseman Niklas Kronwall will be suspended for the all-important Game 7 in the teams’ series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

How can the DoPS suspend Kronwall while ignoring the high hit from Ondrej Palat on Luke Glendening in the same game? How can Kronwall miss a game for his hit, but PK Subban get off essentially scot-free for his two-handed slash against Mark Stone? And anyone who watched the series between the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders must have been surprised that Tom Wilson somehow managed to avoid the wrath of the DoPS for all 7 games.

It’s easy to blame the DoPS for their inconsistency, but what many hockey fans don’t know is that when they’re blaming the department, they’re blaming just about everybody involved in the NHL – Themselves included.

Changing Ways

For many years, hockey fans weren’t given much information when it came to handing down suspensions. We received the news that “Player A has been suspended for X games” and little information besides that. When Colin Campbell was the Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, guessing a suspension length was essentially pulling numbers out of a hat and hoping for the best.

When Brendan Shanahan took over as the Senior Vice President, he formed the Department of Player Safety, giving a bit more transparency into the league’s suspension decisions. By releasing videos after each suspension, Shanahan explained the reasoning behind why the player received the punishment they did. In addition, he and the DoPS released a video at the beginning of his first term explaining new rule changes and what a player can and can’t do to avoid suspension.

When Shanahan took a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stephane Quintal took over and continued that same transparency that began in the 2011-2012 season. In addition, Quintal took the videos a step further and started to include similar hits in the video reel to show why one hit was suspendable and the others were not. This became especially clear in the Niklas Kronwall video, showing the difference between Kronwall’s hit on Kucherov and a previous hit that Kronwall had against the Philadelphia Flyers.

By the Book

It should also be noted that the Department of Player Safety doesn’t need to be as transparent as it has been. Every bit of rules regarding supplemental discipline are laid out directly in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, more specifically Article 18.2:

“… In deciding on Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct, the following factors will be taken into account:
(a) The type of conduct involved: conduct in violation of League Playing Rules, and whether the conduct is intentional or reckless, and involves the use of excessive and unnecessary force. Players are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
(b) Injury to the opposing Player(s) involved in the incident.
(c) The status of the offender and, specifically, whether the Player has a history of being subject to Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct. Players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation.
(d) The situation of the game in which the incident occurred, for example: late in the game, lopsided score, prior events in the game.
(e) Such other factors as may be appropriate in the circumstances.”

So at least four factors in determining a suspendable offense are written right into the CBA: What action was taken, whether an injury was sustained as a result of the action, the history or reputation of the player(s) involved, and the time or tone of the game when the action occurred.

The last bullet point on that list is your typical “Catch All” factor. This allows the league to take a look at other factors that may not be covered by the previous four. Factors such as whether a penalty was called in the game or whether the opposing player was partially responsible for the action that occurred.

As one might imagine, with so many factors coming into play, many of which are player or game-specific factors, it becomes a lot more complicated than simply saying “A headshot is 1 game, boarding is 2 games, etc.”

Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen

To make matters worse, the DoPS is not the only one who weighs in on what can be considered a suspendable action. When the Department of Player Safety was formed in 2011-2012, it was noted that:

“…the Department of Player Safety works with Club General Managers, the Competition Committee and the NHL Players’ Association to continue to look at rules that can better protect players; focuses on safety issues related to players’ equipment and the playing environment; and administers supplemental player discipline.”

The General Managers obviously play a part in determining suspendable actions. They have their GM meetings every year in the winter, and recommending harsher or more lenient penalties for the players is part of those meetings.

Occasionally, an issue will need to see an immediate response, as was the case when Milan Lucic collided with Ryan Miller in the 2011-2012 season. It was no surprise that Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw received a suspension for hitting Arizona Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith later that year.

The Competition Committee is a lesser known group in the NHL, composed of members of the Board of Governors and the NHLPA, along with a non-voting supervisor from each side. They also play a part in determining suspension and suspension length, offering recommendations to the Board of Governors and the Executive Board of the NHL.

Public outcry also plays a role in determining suspension. If an act gets a lot of attention in the media, social networking sites, or discussion boards, the league will be more likely to rule with the court of public opinion. It’s not an ideal situation, but those involved are as human as you or I, and outside pressure can influence the best of us.

Consistency an Impossibility

When it comes down to it, consistency in the decisions made by the Department of Player Safety is an impossible task. With so many factors coming into play with each questionable act, and the many, many groups outside of the department that play a part in determining what constitutes a suspendable act, expecting a consistent decision is simply setting hopes too high.

It’s not the answer that everyone is looking for. It would be much easier, for everyone involved, to simply assign a number to a suspendable action and be done with it. But when it comes to player safety, the department must change as quickly as the game itself does.