It happens almost nightly across the NHL. The play is buzzing along, when all of a sudden, the whistle blows and a player is crumpled on the ice. The crowd gasps, and one fanbase is immediately irate. Meanwhile, another claims it was a “hockey play” and there’s nothing to see here. We would expect a pretty consistent response to hits resulting in a player being injured, but instead the hitter may receive a two, five, or a match penalty on the ice, or may not be penalized at all.
Then, the incident inevitably comes up for review by the league’s Department of Player Safety. This group painstakingly combs through the footage, sometimes interviews the player, sometimes makes him travel to New York in person for a hearing, and ends up levying up to a 20-game suspension or nothing at all. There’s absolutely nothing consistent about the process in reality, and the flaws in this process have become a dangerous blight on the game.
More to the point, it’s the continuous string of spineless leadership by good “hockey men” at the DoPS that becomes more and more difficult to reconcile with. The Honour Roll of these decision makers includes a first-time exec whose jersey was still sweaty from his playing days, a brooding daddy who couldn’t help but interfere when his son was involved in one of the sport’s bloodiest battles, and a would-be safety czar who runs a side hustle promoting violence in the sport. It’s become clear there’s a systemic problem in the way the NHL chooses its heads of Player Safety, and it’s hamstrung them from performing their duties effectively for well over a decade now.
Now, these incidents are the offshoot of a cherished part of the sport: the high-speed physicality. It traditionally has represented hockey at its best when players were taking pop after pop at each other, “finishing their checks” and sometimes dropping the gloves and just having a good, old-fashioned, fist fight. But, with an increase in the speed and strength of hockey players, along with improvements in technology that makes hockey equipment more like armor than soft pads, as well as a generally increased awareness of head injuries, controversial hits in hockey have become more common than ever.
You name an elite star in the league, and they’ve battled concussions on at least one occasion..not always, but more often than not, a result of a dirty or careless hockey play carried out by an inferior athlete. Just this season alone, we’ve had Elias Pettersson, Bobby Ryan, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, and a host of other players miss time due to a concussion. Connor McDavid barely avoided one the other night in a highly publicized, unpenalized hit from behind.
In past seasons, you can add Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos and just about any other star in the league to the list of players who have been forced out of action with head injuries. While you can’t avoid all head injuries in a contact sport by any means, it should be obvious to the NHL and its organizations that elite players missing time due to dirty hits isn’t good. Yet, time and time again, the defense rises up on behalf of the hitter when these incidents arise…ranging from “he didn’t have time to stop” to “he made contact with the shoulder first” to “he should have kept his head up.”
What’s worse than the discourse, however, is the complete lack of accountability enforced by the league’s department in charge of exactly that one function: safety. This department has become a stain on the game and is actively threatening the business interests of the league and the future of the sport.
I grew up a diehard hockey fan. As a Canadian, and specifically, a Vancouverite, where I grew up with no other major sports team, it was a natural fit. I rose and fell with the fortunes of the Canucks, as they went from league laughingstock in the mid-90s to perennial Western Conference power that could never get over the hump through the majority of the 2000s, and back into being a bottom feeder. No team mattered more to me, and no sports moment has made me lose my mind quite like being on hand to watch the Canucks win Game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to move to within a game of winning it all for the first time ever (after which, my brain tells me that nothing happened and that series was never concluded).
Sadly, though, an incredibly disappointing trend has infected the league in the past decade-and-a-half, diminishing my passion significantly: the complete and stunning incompetence of the Department of Player Safety. The problem with the DoPS has many faces. The function of policing the fastest pro sport in North America is very difficult, with the legality of high-speed collisions often boiling down to hundredths of a second or centimetres in contact point. This is inherent.
Where the problem becomes completely toxic is in the elements that the league brings upon itself. No league has a stronger and more vocal old boys club that lobbies harder for the perpetrators than the victims in most instances (for some reason). That old boys club is also the root of a league culture that is outrageously nepotistic and insular. This has led to an ongoing pattern of frustrating inconsistency combined with flaccid repercussions for dangerous hits. It’s an obvious safety concern that threatens the future of the players in a sport that has developed a reputation for its regressive attitude on head trauma.
It’s also a massive problem because the dissonance that often exists between what fans’ eyes tell them and what the DoPS tells them turns people off. Too often, the league has found any excuse to pardon the offender at the expense of the victim (who, to emphasize, is often the more finessed, skilled, and generally a better player). That those reasons often boil down to convoluted interpretations, imperceptible details or contradictions on what we actually see is even more off-putting. It’s gone through regime change after regime change, with different faces providing the same ineffective results.
When your league discipline department is most closely associated with a roulette game, that’s an embarrassment for your league. Yet, infuriatingly, no one within the league seems to believe there is a problem. The speed and skill in the league has never been higher. Parity is at an all-time high. My Canucks have an exciting core of young talent that is just blossoming in the NHL. But I can’t bring myself to care…not the way I used to. No, the league’s pathetic efforts at taking care of its players are officially too much for me. I’m done with the gongshow.
As I alluded to before, this is far from a new problem for the NHL. Player safety didn’t become a majorly divisive issue until after its first lockout in 2004-2005. The man in charge at the time was 12-year NHL veteran (take note of this, it’ll become a pattern) and New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell. Campbell successfully ran the department for a handful of years, but ran into major trouble starting in 2010.
See, Colin’s biggest challenge wasn’t the job itself, but instead his uncontrollable desire to play daddy for his little boy. Unfortunately, his “little boy” was Gregory Campbell, a winger for the Florida Panthers and later the Boston Bruins. This proved to be a major conflict of interest to everyone but Colin. In 2010, a series of emails surfaced from the senior Campbell, bitching about various referees who dared to give little Greggy a penalty. For a normal dad, no big deal. For the NHL’s Senior Vice President, ick.
Campbell’s defense was, incredibly, “I didn’t know people could read your emails.” I’m not even kidding. The controversy dogged Colin until he resigned in June of 2011, to avoid further issues with little Greggy about to play in the Stanley Cup Final with the Bruins. Instead, cronies that had all worked for Colin handled the discipline in a particularly pugnacious seven-game final.
Did Greggy’s team benefit from this? I’m not even going to tiptoe around it…yeah, it sure as hell did. The series’ defining image became the Bruins’ Brad Marchand repeatedly punching the Canucks’ Daniel Sedin in the face during a stoppage in play, which was neither penalized on the ice nor discouraged in any way by the league afterwards - something I noted in an article focusing on the Sedins last year. Other high profile incidents during the series proved the DoPS to be completely lacking consistency or objectivity. For example, a Vancouver player was suspended for the rest of the series a period into Game 3 (historically, an extremely harsh penalty for the circumstances) for a blindside hit on a Boston player.
On the other side, a Boston defender drove a Vancouver player from behind into the boards, literally breaking his back, and the league did nothing. Another incident saw the Boston goaltender bodycheck an unsuspecting Vancouver player from behind while the puck was in the air a few feet away, again to no response. On the league’s biggest stage, in one of the most closely contested finals in history, the Department showed itself to be a complete joke, governed by inbreeding rather than objectivity.
The DoPS becoming a glib running joke in NHL circles started prior to 2011, however. As early as 2009, one can find articles mocking the league’s justice process as more and more questionable hits came to the forefront. A hit producing a multi-game suspension would be followed by a similar hit producing nothing. A player suspended harshly with the reasoning that he’s a “repeat offender” would be followed by a notorious goon escaping a dirty hit unpunished. Sometimes, it looked like the suspension was determined by the injuries the victim suffered. Sometimes, it looked like it was determined by the relative starpower of the perpetrator and the victim. Most times we just waited to see what the league’s “Wheel of Justice” (a meme that has actually spawned websites dedicated to it) would land on, seemingly at random.
After the 2011 season, the league moved to replace Campbell. Optimism followed the changing of the guard. Campbell had grown stale and out of touch, people said. He’d been in the job too long, people said. He had too many family connections and strong friendships within executive circles. A new head would surely see the obvious issues with his predecessor and make the fix.
Enter Brendan Shanahan, a 22-year NHL vet who the league promoted from another head office position to be the discipline czar. Shanahan seemed like a breath of fresh air initially. In the first month of the 2011-12 season, he levied a staggering 31 games of suspensions for various hits, and delivered his verdicts in succinct video clips, summarizing the rule in question and the department’s interpretations of the various aspects of it. People loved the newfound transparency, and the new DoPS’ stiff stance on head injuries. However, Shanahan’s iron fist started to fade after just a few months.
The videos continued, but the punishments got lighter and lighter, amid rumors that a group of GMs (the kings of the old boys club) had begun lobbying the league to put Shanahan on a leash. Disappointment with the direction of the Department grew throughout the Shanahan regime, up through his resignation in April of 2014 to take a position with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and including the year-and-a-half reign by his successor (and former assistant) Stephane Quintal, a 17-year NHL vet. Quintal continued both the trend of slackening but consistently inconsistent discipline and the practice of explaining decisions in video clips.
In the fall of 2016, the NHL again faced a vacancy at the top of the DoPS. The Department regularly attracted controversy, and many wondered what kind of different direction the league would go in with its new hire. The league’s choice, George Parros, answered that question with a strange twist.
Parros was, like his predecessors, a long time NHL vet (10 years), but was also an Ivy League graduate who had been a notable pugilist himself. Optimists thought Parros’ intelligence and first-hand knowledge of the finer points of league discipline from the players’ eyes (1,092 career penalty minutes) would lead to a more in-touch approach to discipline. Instead, it’s been more of the same…minus, of course, the videos, which were quickly scrapped (“because, why should we have to explain ourselves to the rubes that are fans of our league?”). Those who were paying attention should have figured, given that Parros’ side business is a company called “Violent Gentlemen,” which, among other things, sells hats that say “Make Hockey Violent Again.” Yup, you read that right…the league’s head of player safety literally profits from promoting violence in the sport. It is absolutely stupefying.
The French saying “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more that changes, the more remains the same”) clearly applies to the Department of Player Safety. So what can the league possibly do to address the glaring problem? You know, once one of the potato heads in the head office actually recognizes the problem? One fix is incredibly easy, yet incredibly difficult for the NHL in its current culture: hire someone who isn’t an “insider” to run the department. There’s absolutely no need for the dude reviewing video replays and applying concrete rules to have to have played in the league. A lawyer could do it well. A successful businessman could. Heck, even a former official could. Literally the only qualification necessary is sharp vision and the ability to read the rule book. The key change, though, is that it can’t be someone who is in, associated with or influenced by hockey’s pervasive old boys club.
Further to that point, the DoPS needs to revisit its discipline process, beginning with completely cutting off communication with team executives when disciplining their players. There’s no reason for management or executives to have any say over the process, and any of that nonsense completely poisons the well.
Finally, the entire leadership structure needs to undergo a cultural overhaul, adopting the mentality that it’s better to punish a hit too harshly than too loosely. They need to reach the realization that bad hits are a danger to the game as a whole. Hockey people have never believed that, and it has to change imminently. Football, the demon of the head injury narrative, has done so, and both the NCAA and NFL have seen a significant decrease in head injuries. The NHL, unfortunately, has shown zero indication that it’s aware of any of this, and until the league does more than offer lip service and actually takes steps to protect its players, I can’t support it. It’s completely unconscionable to me.
The NHL occupies a unique position in North American sports culture. It’s big enough to be considered one of the “Big 4” continental sports leagues, yet it has always acted like the baby brother of the group, constantly clamoring for attention and traction in the United States, and willing to try just about any stunt to gain some. Yet, the biggest thing that has consistently gotten in the league’s way is its own compulsion to act like a Mickey Mouse, mom-and-pop, beer league. There’s no other way to describe the constant cycling of one crusty old-school troglodyte after another in leadership roles by both the league and most of its member clubs. Once it decides to get out of its own way and move into the 21st century, I may reconcile…but for now? It can continue its drift into irrelevance on its own. I’m emotionally divested.