Crime, Punishment, and Player Safety
No-one loves a good fight more than a hockey fan. The energy and intense action of the game creates a level of excitement on the ice and in the stands that’s unique to hockey. This passion often boils over into confrontations and fisticuffs between players fueled by speed and adrenaline.
There is no other contact sport where players move at the speeds achieved on the ice. Skaters are topping 40 miles per hour making stopping instantly impossible and player collisions unavoidable. Players are going to take hits from other players, hit the boards, glass, goal, and ice. It’s hockey, and that’s the price to play the game.
What’s not ‘just part of hockey’ is the recent trend of vicious, malicious hits perpetrated over the last 2 seasons. These aren’t simply hits intended to get a player off the puck or send a message. They aren’t plays gone wrong, bad angles, or a misjudgment of ice position. Instead, they are deliberate attempts to injure another player.
Intent To Injure
You can almost see the gleam in the eye of some of the attackers as they gear up for the hit. They take their shot and show no visible remorse at seeing a fellow player flat on his back on the ice, or worse out cold. Even after the most gruesome hits, the cameras often capture the offender smiling and jeering at their opponent.
Don’t misunderstand. I love a good solid check or a fair fight as much as the next fan. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush of being on the ice. The speed, drama, and spirit of competition must be intoxicating. What I can’t understand is how that translates into a latent desire to seriously injure another man?
The league gives lip service to their concern for player safety, but isn’t truly managing the problem. There is plenty of talk about a crackdown on hits to the head, defenseless player hits, and other ‘cheap shot’ penalties, but there isn’t a consistent and meaningful penalty system for deterring these types of plays. If you look at a sampling of crimes and penalties over the last season, it’s easy to see the consequences for on ice actions aren’t being applied consistently from one player to the next.
Yes, the decisions to review hits are subjective. Yes, it’s true no one can see into the mind of a player. However, it’s obvious to most of those who watch penalties aren’t assessed, nor are disciplinary sentences dealt without bias.
Much of the disparity appears to be based on the perception of a player’s fan appeal and their ability to affect the game. Those seen as ‘stars’ or ‘golden-boys’ have penalties against them called more quickly and penalties by them are often ignored or played down. The reverse is also true. Penalties come quicker for players labeled as ‘goons’ or ‘enforcers’ and the repercussions are often much harsher than the infraction called or punishment handed down to others.
When incidents call for a review by the NHL, the charges assigned by the Department of Player Safety (DPS) are often confusing when compared against the actual play. Equally often, the rulings appear strategically chosen to limit the discipline that must be applied or the sentences are disproportionate to similar situations.
For just a moment, take off your jersey and put aside your loyalty for teams and players. Take an objective outsider’s look at the examples laid out for you. If you can do that, you’ll start to understand how ineffective and biased the league has been in addressing the issues.
Consider this year’s round 1 playoff hit by the Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook on David Backes of the St. Louis Blues. This was a sickening hit that left Backes clearly stunned and concussed. Seabrook not only delivered a late hit, but a hit to the head on a defenseless player.
Argue intent if you like, but do it after you look at the hit with your new objectivity. While you’re looking, be sure to take note of Seabrook’s behavior even after seeing Backes sprawled on the ice in a daze. He continues to taunt him, when clearly he’s injured and struggling to stay on his feet. There is no concern for Backes obvious injury. (If you’re having trouble seeing his injury as obvious, please stop reading.)
Replay after replay makes it clear that Seabrook’s hit targeted Backes’ head and was delivered from behind, driving him into the boards. However, when reviewed by the DPS instead of an illegal check to the head and boarding penalty, Seabrook was determined to be guilty of only charging and interference without any mention of the obvious point of contact being Backes’ head. How could such obvious penalties be downplayed given the results of the hit?
Since we all have on our Objectivity Glasses, let’s be honest. These calls were chosen so Seabrook could return to the playoffs. He’s a staple player on the Blackhawks. His being suspended had the potential to affect the Hawk’s performance in the playoffs.
Should this really be a consideration when assigning a punishment for an unsportsmanlike and dangerous attack on another player? What makes Seabrook’s star power more valuable than the consequences to Backes’ health? How can the DPS so subjectively, (read ridiculously) assign penalties? With this statement, “**If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).**” (See the complete rule set regarding penalties.)
One-Off? Think Again.
Let’s not fool ourselves here. This is not an isolated case of a ‘bad call’ by the DPS. It’s a blatant misuse of the rules. Still believe Seabrook received the right punishment for the hit? Have a look at some of the other penalties called this year. See how they compare in the severity of the infraction, then the assignment of penalties and resulting sentence by the DPS.
Brent Seabrook (CHI) / David Backes (STL) - Charging and interference, 3 games
Zac Rinaldo (PHI) / Chad Ruhwedel (BUF) - Illegal check to the head – 4 games
Zac Rinaldo (PHI) / Mikhail Grabovski (WSH) – No review or suspension
Ryan White (CDN) / Kent Huskins (PHI) – Illegal check to the head – 5 games
Douglas Murray (CDN) / Mike Kostka (TBL) – Illegal check to the head – 3 games
Mike Rupp (MIN) / T.J. Oshie (STL) - Illegal check to the head – 4 games
Ryan Garbutt (DAL) / Dustin Penner (ANH) - Charging – 5 games
Deryk Engelland (PIT) / Justin Abdelkader (DET) – Illegal check to the head – 5 games
John Scott (BUF) / Loui Eriksson (BOS) – Illegal check to the head – 7 games
Shawn Thorton (BOS) / Brooks Orpik (PIT) – 15 games no clear account of charges
Patrick Kaleta (BUF) / Jack Johnson (CBJ) - Illegal check to the head – 10 games
Raffi Torres (ARZ) / Marian Hossa (CHI) – Charging, interference, illegal check to the head – 25 games
Nate Thompson (TBL) / Matt D’Agostini (NJD) - Illegal check to the head – 2 games
Corey Perry (ANH) / Jason Zucker (MIN) – Illegal check to the head – 4 games
It’s often hard for fans to put aside their loyalty to their team and players. Objectivity and impartiality has never been a trait fans apply to their view of a game. That’s not a criticism. It’s just human nature to want things for your team to be fair, for the iffy calls to go their way, and to want them to win. It’s called being a fan.
However, impartiality should be expected of the ruling body of the sport. The Department of Player Safety should not make calls based on who the player is or what the rest of their schedule looks like. Their job is to ensure the safety of ALL of the players in the league. To do that effectively, they need to put aside status, money, and yes, even the opinion of the fans.
Their loyalty needs to lie with the players. None of the rest matters to a player who is unable to play or whose career has ended because of a careless, thoughtless, and stupid act of one of his own.
This fan is hopeful that over the summer the league will take a real look at player safety in regard to these types of situations. Maybe with the departure of Brendan Shanahan from the DPS the office can make real changes that will keep the players safe while keeping the game as exciting as it’s always been.
Simple definitions of common penalties
Boarding – violent or unnecessary hit into boards of defenseless player, with consideration for the offensive player’s simultaneous or last second repositioning
Charging – violent or unnecessary hit of an opponent after skating from some distance, with consideration for the offensive player’s simultaneous or last second repositioning
Check from behind – a hit to the back of an offensive players; ‘hit to the numbers’
Illegal check to the head – check where the head of the offensive player is the targeted and principal point of contact; may have consideration given for a last second repositioning by the offensive player