By Ryan Wilson
Follow me on Twitter @gunnerstaal
As each day passes in the playoffs it seems that it also comes with a new disciplinary issue. The one thing that most people who are directly involved with the NHL, as well as fans can agree on, is that nobody really seems to know what will happen as a result of these incidents. Confusion and guessing seems to be the norm when trying to discuss potential punishment. How did things get so confusing and where have things gone awry?
It starts with the philosophy on how they actually view suspensions. Most people can live with decisions, as long as there is some level of consistently. Currently the league allows for too many variables when administering discipline which in turn does not lend itself to consistency. These include but are not limited to: what actually happened, who was the aggressor, who did it happen to, was there an injury, is there a past history with offending player, is it playoffs or regular season? Etc…
There are just too many things going on there. Just like a team engaged in a tight overtime playoff game, simple is better. By having so many variables it opens up the potential for players to sneak through the cracks and avoid appropriate punishment. It also does not deter players from making questionable plays because they think there is the chance they can avoid punishment.
The first change that needs to be made is eliminating the injury variable. Time and time again players will continue to take the chance that their risky hit will not injure the player. The risk-reward for the player delivering the hit is one that makes sense to him. He can send a message and inflict damage on an opponent and more times than not the player will get up and keep playing, hockey players are tough like that.
Punish the act itself
, not the result. If players know that the act of making a questionable hit will give them the same suspension regardless if the player is hurt or not, I can guarantee you that they will not continuously take that chance. Take for instance the Raffi Torres play on Marian Hossa. Torres should be suspended the same amount of games regardless if Hossa was taken off on a stretcher, or if he played his next shift. The James Neal hit on Sean Couturier really isn’t all that different and should be punished the same, but it wont be (1 game for Neal versus what will probably be many for Torres). The difference is that James Neal is a 40 goal scorer and Couturier was not hurt (nor a star player, yet) and Raffi Torres is a guy with a history and is an easy mark to hand out a long term suspension to. Having different punishments for similar actions is no way to develop consistency or deter future infractions. The act needs to be punished, not the result.
By allowing injury to be a factor you have opened up another can of worms, embellishment. Players have trended towards soccer-like theatrics in recent years because they see that if they have the appearance of being hurt, there will be a stiffer in-game penalty or suspension. Players have taken notice that if you get right back up, most likely nothing will come of it. That goes against pretty much everything the spirit of hockey is about.
Another factor that needs to be thrown out the window is if the player delivering the hit is a star or not. You want consistency; everybody plays by the same rules. On night #1 in the playoffs this year the league decided to turn the other way with the Shea Weber/Henrik Zetterberg incident. Instead of suspending Weber for a targeted head shot they let it go based on who it was. The $2500 suspension given to Weber is what equates to most of us regular folk as a $10 fine. This has set the tone so far in this years postseason and you can see where it has gone in all the other series, namely Pittsburgh/Philadelphia.
Brendan Shanahan is the person who will take the brunt of most discourse as it pertains to league discipline and safety, some of that criticism is fair. However I think people are forgetting that at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season (and preseason) that Shanahan was indeed strict and handed out harder punishments. The turning point was when James Wisniewski was suspended 8 regular season games for something that happened in the preseason. At this time the general managers of the league started complaining about how tough Shanahan was and how unfair the strict punishments were. Since then Shanahan has effectively been neutered and he is left as the monotone guy making cheesy videos that explain the light suspensions. The discipline problem runs way higher that Brendan Shanahan, who is now just a figurehead.
What can be done moving forward? Here are some POTENTIAL
The Mario Lemieux fine system
Get it out of your system now, hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite. OK, now that is out of the way we can get into the nuts and bolts of his proposed idea? The proposal includes fining teams based on suspensions handed out by the league. If players aren’t being deterred from their actions based on the punishments/fines (pathetically low $2500 max fine), then hit their employers where is matters most, their wallets.
1-2 games--$50,000 fine to team
3-4 games--$100,000 fine to team
5-8 games--$250,000 fine to team
9-10 games--$500,000 fine to team
11-15 games--$750,000 fine to team
More than 15 games--$1 million fine to team
If a player is a repeat offender during that season, the fine to the team would double
In a league where most teams struggle to get into the black financially, what owner in their right mind is going to OK their GM to sign players who can put them at financial risk? What owner is going to want Raffi Torres on their roster if they know at any given moment he is one play away from costing them a million dollars? The players who are consistently stupid, will not be able to find work in the NHL anymore. Money talks.
The fact is that this proposal is better than anything that is currently in place. It deserves consideration, regardless of who proposed it.
Independent ruler on suspensions
The NHL could do what the NFL has done, hire an independent person with no ties to the sport itself. This person would be looking at the plays for what they are and be able to address them without any previous bias.
You could have a panel of different backgrounds that would make decisions as a group. Examples of people that could potentially be on the panel but not limited to: Former referee, former player, former coach, former GM, somebody from the media, the Commissioner, player agent etc… Different backgrounds with different perspectives all coming together to make a decision.
Eliminating the instigator
From Rick Tocchet via Twitter:
Rick Tocchet @RealRocket22
Some of these questionable hits and stick work are coming from guys quite frankly , aren't super tough ...I hate to be that guy but 10 years ago these guys would be getting their asses kicked , and I mean asses kicked ... I was coaching and Gary Roberts ( a tough stand up ) was playing for me ..a well know rat own the other team was running around sticking and hitting guys after the whistle ...well Gary went and try to grab the rat and he turtled ..the ref gave Roberts 4 mins for roughing and Nothing to the rat ...that is your answer to these questions !! Some of these refs have no feel and understand the game ..if the rat got slapped around from Gary and knew the ref wouldn't call his gutless diving , a lot of this stuff would go away ...that's my 3 am rant !!
There is a lot of truth in what Tocchet is saying. Guys wouldn’t be running around hitting with the purpose of hurting another player. Instead their focus would be on hitting with the intention of earning puck possession, if they were susceptible to a beat down. Sure there will be fights that are not warranted, but there will be drastically fewer hellacious head shots and lack of respect around the league. I’ll take my chances with the face to face fighting rather than the blind side annihilations that are becoming the norm.
Much like an addict, until that person (league) wants to change, nothing is going to change. That much is certain. Until then, the league will continue to recycle players in the mold of Cooke and Torres that put other players at serious risk. Its no coincidence that Cooke is the only player to actually be punished severely in the past few years, and he is the one that has visibly cleaned up his act the most.
So what is going to happen? Much like the current state of discipline, your guess is as good as mine.
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Follow me on Twitter @gunnerstaal