Has the NHL Dropped the Ball on Player Safety?

When the NHL named Brendan Shanahan to replace Colin Campbell as the league’s chief disciplinarian on June 1, 2011, it marked a major departure from business as usual. After spending decades with their heads in the sand, the NHL was in the initial stages of admitting that there was a major concussion problem. Shanahan attempted to change the culture around player safety–and while the reviews were mixed, the destination was usually clear. The Department of Player Safety was looking to take the head hits and blatantly dangerous plays out of the game. But with Shanahan leaving his post before the Stanley Cup Playoffs,  the nearly three years of slow and steady progress has been completely wiped out in just over a month (Shanahan left his post to become President & Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 11).

Sending the Wrong Message

The NHL’s response to dangerous incidents during this playoff year has been woefully inadequate. The latest incidents–a late hit by the Montreal Canadiens’ Brandon Prust to the head of Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers, and a similar hit by the Rangers’ John Moore to Montreal’s Dale Weise–are a perfect example of what is wrong. The Prust incident involved everything that the NHL claims it is trying to remove from the game: A late hit that also targeted the head of the opponent and caused an injury (Stepan’s jaw was broken by the hit and required surgery). Moore’s hit was not late by current league standards, but was still a hit that clearly targeted the head.

The response from the NHL? Two-game suspensions for both Prust and Moore. In their decision on the Prust incident, the Department of Player Safety acknowledged both the lateness of the hit and the head contact–but then seemingly ignored both aspects by handing down a slap on the wrist. If the league is truly trying to change the culture around hits to the head, then the method of punishment for these hits needs to change drastically.  These dangerous hits will remain in the game as long as there is no fear of meaningful repurcussions.

 

By no means were these hits the only examples of weak punishments this playoff season.  Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks was suspended 3 games for a deliberate check to the head of David Backes in the first round. In the next round the Hawks’ Brandon Bollig was suspended 2 games for checking Minnesota Wild defenseman Keith Ballard  from behind. Even the 7 game suspension to perennial offender Matt Cooke (for a kneeing incident that may have single-handedly sealed the playoff fate of the Colorado Avalanche) came up short in the eyes of many. Other than a 10 game suspension to Daniel Carcillo of the Rangers for contact with an official, these were the only suspensions handed out in the playoffs.  There were many other dangerous plays that were punished by only a fine. More on these a bit later.

The current wisdom is that the suspensions should be shorter in the playoffs because the stakes are higher. But if a player is injured due to a blatantly dangerous hit, his recovery isn’t always shorter just because it’s the playoffs. In some cases players can (and do) return sooner, but a torn ACL won’t magically repair itself just because there’s a game 7 in a few days. Thus, the shorter punishments are actually less effective because the offender now stands to return quicker, but the victim is stuck with the same recovery time. Rather than being a discouragement, the “discipline” actually rewards teams for dirty play.

Where are the NHL’s Priorities?

When we look at additional incidents that were not even handled with a suspension, a disturbing pattern begins to emerge. In the first round, on back-to-back nights, two separate incidents occurred that resulted in fines. In one, Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins speared the Detroit Red Wings Danny DeKeyser’s crotch from behind and received a $5,000 fine. A day earlier, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, showing his displeasure with an uncalled delay of game, grabbed his crotch Roseanne Arnold-style and was fined $25,000. What message was being sent here? We’ll give you a hint–in the games that followed, incidents of players spearing each other in the crotch skyrocketed (predictably). A toothless punishment proved to have the exact opposite of its intended effect. But at least nobody else has grabbed their crotch again.

Image is Everything

This playoff season, it’s becoming painfully obvious that the league is still more interested in protecting its own image than protecting the safety of its players. Infractions that make the league look bad are dealt with swiftly and harshly, while the safety of the players takes a back seat. As much as some people hate the old days of enforcers, fighting and “The Code”, it served as a way to punish those who would deal out these dangerous hits. Since the league is now intent on removing that self-regulation, they must implement something equally harsh (from the players’ perspective) to take its place. Otherwise there’s simply no incentive for the players to change.

Whether it’s hits to the head or spearing, if the league continues to dole out ineffective punishments, the acts and resulting injuries will continue. The NHL’s current path is madness. There are two choices for the NHL: either let the enforcers do their jobs and let the game police itself, or have the league become the enforcer. Right now, we have the worst of both worlds, which is a recipe for disaster. What will it take for the league to get serious about protecting its players? Will the slaps-on-the-wrist continue until another Marty McSorley or Todd Bertuzzi incident happens? Because that is where we are headed, ladies and gentlemen.  Sadly, it’s just a matter of time.

 

Kevin Mizera can be reached via Twitter: @KMizTHW or via Email: kmizsbl@gmail.com