5 Ways to Improve NHL Player Safety

The NHL has a department for player safety and I’m not a fan of how they do their job. The most consequential part of their job relates to head shots, coming from both fights and hits. A recent THW article by Sammi Silber covered this in some detail.

My approach here is to consider changes in how the NHL manages the punitive aspects of this. Not all head hits are preventable, but a reduction in head hits is in everyone’s interest —  players, coaches, owners and fans.

Jakob Silfverberg
Jakob Silfverberg (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

I’ll start with an example. Last season, the NHL suspended Sharks forward Raffi Torres for 41 games, half a season, for a vicious head hit on Anaheim’s Jakob Silfverberg. I didn’t think the suspension was enough consequence for Torres, a frequent offender. Concussions are, by their nature, the sort of injury that has both near-term and potentially long-term consequences for the injured player. It was not enough to suspend Torres. The league must find ways to eliminate the type of plays that result in concussions. Importantly, the league must also discourage the types of plays that lead up to concussions. The league’s hypocrisy is not helping.

My suggestions fall into two basic categories. There are punishments that only impact the player and punishments that impact both the player and the team. Both matter. If a team sees a player likely to cost them in various ways, the team will be more reluctant to sign the player at full value, which will, in turn, take money from that player. It is deterrence on two levels.

Certain punishments can also carry a third, indirect effect. Players feeling the heat from their families or risking being ostracized from the locker room are examples. Some of the suggestions carry that potential.

Team Loses the Roster Spot

When Torres was suspended for 41 games, the Sharks roster was still able to have 23 players on it. What if the team’s roster was docked the spot occupied by the suspended player and only allowed 22 on the NHL roster?

Would that make an impact? Actually, it would. NHL teams play numerous back-to-back games. Many teams like to give older players a game off on a back-to-back, especially if it is part of a lengthy road trip. General managers would not want to risk having just 22 players on a roster for an extended time frame. This would make general managers more reluctant to sign players who have a significant chance to get a lengthy suspension. They would be certainly reluctant to sign these risky players to long-term deals (Torres, for example, was on a 3-year deal). This has the effect of punishing the team for signing the player in addition to punishing the player.

If teams are reluctant to sign a player with a history of suspensions, it hits the player in the wallet a second time. Deals will be shorter and for less money.

Taking away a roster spot is a modest limitation, but it creates potential headaches, expenses and risks for the team. It is enough of a headache that teams won’t appreciate guys getting suspended for lengthy periods.

Suspensions Served Against the Injured Parties

I’d have suspensions served against the injured player and/or team affected. The hit by Torres which resulted in the 41-game suspension came against Anaheim Ducks forward Jakob Slifverberg. The suspension should be served in games against the Anaheim Ducks and against teams which Jacob Silfverberg plays for, should he get moved to another team.

How would this work? I’ll pull a separate example. In October 2013, Dan Boyle took an ugly hit from Maxime Lapierre, then of the St. Louis Blues.

Lapierre was suspended a measly five games for a hit that deserved far more. Say the NHL Department of Player Safety had done its job and suspended Lapierre for 12 games, with all of those games to be served against either the Sharks or the team Boyle plays for at the time.

In this case, two games of the suspension would have been served during that season when the Blues played San Jose. Ten games of the suspension would have remained for Lapierre. When the 2013-14 season ended, Boyle went to the New York Rangers. Lapierre would then miss all the games his team played against either New York or San Jose. What would the remaining ten games of suspension do to Lapierre’s value to potential employers? It would plummet.

Let’s examine why his value would plummet. Since he would be ineligible for games (including playoff games) against the Sharks, you could rule out almost every team in the Pacific Division wanting to sign Lapierre. Since teams cross divisions for the playoffs, any team that felt they had a playoff chance — and thought Lapierre could help them — would be reluctant to sign him. It would be problematic for teams in the Western Conference to sign Lapierre if they felt he could help them succeed. The list of teams which might consider signing Lapierre would be significantly reduced. Only Western teams which didn’t think they could make the playoffs would give Lapierre serious consideration, and even then, likely for no more than a one-year deal.

With Boyle having joined the Rangers for the 2014-15 season, the same logic would then apply to teams in the East. Any team with Lapierre would have him suspended for games against Boyle’s new team, the Rangers, meaning teams would be reluctant to sign Lapierre unless they expected to miss the playoffs. Lapierre would be suspended for any game, until his suspension expired, against both San Jose and New York.

The bottom line is that Lapierre serving this sort of 12-game suspension would have damaged his NHL career. Very few teams would even consider employing him. Given that Lapierre isn’t that good of a player, this sort of suspension might even have ended his NHL career. Good riddance? Yes.

Had this happened, we also wouldn’t have had this disconcerting spectacle of Lapierre trying to mock Dan Boyle with this ‘chicken move’ in the playoffs last year. Hockey doesn’t need this.

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Earlier I mentioned certain punishments could result in a locker room turning against a player. Serving a suspension for an incident which happened a while back can have that sort of impact. When you might need that player, he isn’t there. It comes across as selfish.

Let’s be honest. Most of the problematic players we are talking about here are not top-tier guys. Teams may put up with a selfish player who happens to be really good, but they won’t be so generous with low-skilled players who are selfish. A lesser skilled player who you can’t count on to show up? They won’t last for very long in the NHL.

I can envision hybrid suspensions, where a multi-year ban is put on the player for playing against the team/player coupled with a suspension for immediate games. In Lapierre’s case, for example, this suspension would make sense: a two-year ban playing against either Dan Boyle or the Sharks, plus five games of immediate suspension. For Torres, instead of a blanket 41-game suspension, a 25-game suspension might have been more appropriate, had it been coupled with a career suspension for games against Silfverberg or Anaheim.

These sorts of suspensions, where the victimized player and team do not see the dirty player for an extended period, will be more effective (and fairer) than the blanket suspensions which occur now.

Fines for Minor Offenses

Small stuff begets big stuff. When Rudy Giuliani sought to clean up New York City and make it safer, he went after many of the small crimes. His reasoning: policing the smaller issues effectively means many bigger issues never happen. Stop a turf war at the ‘graffiti level’, not the ‘violence level’. It worked.

The NHL could do much the same with thrown elbows and cheap shots. Start fining players for the small stuff that often escalates. Fine them every time.

Below is an example of the sort of thing. Jason Chimera heads to the bench and elbows a Sharks player entering the ice. Joe Thornton then hits Chimera with his stick and Chimera returns the favor by slashing Thornton. Thornton starts to go after Chimera, but the ref is standing there. What is appropriate? Fine Chimera 10% of a game check for the elbow. Is it going to change Chimera’s behavior? Not if the fine is a one-time thing. But if it is frequent, it can change behavior.

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A couple of seasons back, Dan Cleary elbowed Scott Hannan in the head while the two pursued a puck with less than two minutes to go in the game. Detroit trailed by three goals. Hannan then went after Cleary. Once again, a little event becomes something bigger. If it is going to cost Cleary a good part of his game check, maybe it doesn’t happen. Cleary received no discipline for this elbow.

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I know a modest fine doesn’t seem like much, but it lets players know the league is watching. Maybe 10% of a game check the first time, 20% the next time, etc. Small but frequent fines for all those after the whistle scrums, face washes, slashes and the occasional bite. These events are not suspension-worthy and maybe not even penalty-worthy. But they matter.

Players might not miss $1,200 (10% of a Chimera game check), but as the fines get larger, they’ll notice. And you know who else will notice? The player’s wives and mothers. They will be the ones telling their husbands and sons not to throw away their money. As Father Guido Sarducci once observed, small penalties for small sins ‘can mount up’. If you can get the wives and mothers to do part of your enforcement, you’ll have a lot of success.

Teams Right to Terminate

For egregious offenses, the team should be given the right to terminate a contract. It may seem like a conflict with the earlier suggestion of losing the roster spot, but giving teams a right to terminate a contract over a major suspension is a fair consequence for a player who frequently pushes the player safety envelope. On one hand, it might make teams a bit more willing to take a risk on a problematic player like Torres. On the other hand, the player puts his livelihood at risk. One more bad hit and the paychecks stop. Suspensions can get a players attention — the risk of ending a contract will get it faster.

Lifetime Bans

I put it out there in an earlier column that Raffi Torres should have been banned from the NHL‘. Yes, it is extreme — extreme also describes the post-NHL life of former players whose concussions have left them in terrible mental condition. Sure, we can read about deaths like Rick Rypien (suicide), Wade Belak (suicide) and Derek Boogaard (overdose), all guys who never saw 40. Or the recent suicide of Todd Ewen before turning 50. Who knows what the future holds for Ryane Clowe, done with the NHL at age 32, due to concussions. Or Chris Pronger, ironically enough, now in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, who retired over concussions. Scott Parker was done at 30 — due to concussions. When Parker was 35, Adrian Dater captured his post-NHL misery.

Kicking players out of the NHL isn’t something that should be done lightly. I’d offer up Todd Bertuzzi, who assaulted Steve Moore, as another player that deserved this sort of ban. Bertuzzi’s assault of Moore also fit the category of ‘smaller events spiraling out of control‘. A result which might never have happened had the NHL used the types of enforcement actions proposed in this article.

The old barroom saying goes “It’s closing time. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Well, its time the NHL adopted a version of it: “you don’t have to stop playing hockey, but you can’t play in this league.”

The issue of head hits is a serious one. The NHL has yet to show it is serious about the issue. I’d rather the league err on the side of player health. It is overdue.

Zeke’s Notes

One more consideration is the idea of using helmet cages instead of visors. Cages are mostly thought of as a form of protection from stray pucks and high sticks. A by-product would also be a reduction in fighting. After all, no one is going to throw punches if the other guy is wearing a cage. Given the wide use of these in lower levels of hockey, it is not a stretch to think this can be adopted.

Some of my thoughts in this column were touched on in a column about John Scott, and the role he filled in the NHL. As likable as Scott is, the role he played in the NHL is not healthy for the league.