Nothing But Inconsistency: The NHL and Player Safety

 

The protection of players’ health and strict concussion protocols are all the rage in pro contact sports. The NHL is no exception. However, it all sounds great in the news and on paper. Depending how you look at it, the reality unfortunately looks more like a joke, is infuriating or shows an indefensible lack of consistency. Two incidents a week ago, again raise questions about how serious the league is about player safety. On Saturday the Nashville Predators forward Scott Hartnell (6’.2”, 315 lb.) delivered a late hit on Buffalo Sabres defenseman Victor Antipin (5’.11”, 175 lb.). The hit was so vicious that Antipin had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher. According to Buffalo news outlets, Antipin suffered a broken nose, facial lacerations, dental injuries and a concussion. For Antipin the season is over. And the league’s reaction? Nothing. No hearing in front of the Department for Players Safety or DOPS and no supplementary discipline. Most longtime hockey observers expected a 3-5 game suspension. Buffalo coach Phil Housley didn’t mince words to show his disappointment with the league’s decision. “Well, I do know that our player was taken off on a stretcher, has a broken nose, facial lacerations and missing teeth. So, in that respect, I strongly disagree with the NHL decision. It’s unfortunate for Victor because I thought he had a solid game and I don’t believe he’ll be playing the rest of the year. We feel for him … I just felt with that situation, it wasn’t handled the right way.”

One day later, on Sunday, Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand demonstrated the viewers on NBC how he intends to deal with players who strip the puck of him. He just turns and cross-checks the player, in this case Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald, in the face. Cross-checking in the face is considered a cheap shot and dirty. And the league’s reaction? Marchand has to pay $ 5,000 fine.

What do Hartnell and Marchand in common? They are both repeat offenders, meaning they both have been suspended before. Both players are known for agitating, cheap shots and illegal hits. But they are both also a picture of the NHL’s hypocrisy when it comes to player safety. George Orwell famously said that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. He must have had the NHL in mind. After every questionable hit, elbow to the head, interference or cross-check, fans and observers are never certain about what the DOPS will do. The application of rules and their enforcement seem random. Will he get a suspension, will he not get a suspension? The whole process feels opaque. Would Hartnell and Marchand have gotten away the way they did if superstars like Sidney Crosby or Rick Nash would have been on the receiving end? It is safe to assume that suspension would have been more forthcoming. Why do fans feel that players from big market teams end up with lesser punishment than players from small market teams? And how about dirty hits by superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Alex Ovechkin? They often face less scrutiny then a player who plays on the third or fourth line. For example, Brad Marchand is technically not considered a repeat offender according to league rules. For that you need to commit the same offense within the last 18. Cross-checking instead of hitting somebody with the elbow in the face, no problem.

The main goal of the DOPS is to reduce player injury in game while trying to keep up with the game’s constant changes from year to year. In order to fulfill such a task, the DOPS will often overcorrect, resulting in crack downs on certain violations in a given season. To give an example, in 2009 Mike Richards of the Philadelphia took out David Booth of the Florida Panthers with a brutal hit. In reaction the NHL, along with the DOPS, made changes as to how a player could be hit and defined that if a player were to be unsuspecting and completely vulnerable that such a hit on said player would be considered a “blindside” hit and would be penalized and strictly enforced. Then there was the famous “Sean Avery” rule which was a crack down on contact with a goaltender around and in front of the net. After an incident with Avery, a New York Rangers enforcer, facing New Jersey Devils goaltender Marty Brodeur where he stood up Brodeur, trying various questionable antics in an attempt to provide a screen. After this occurred, DOPS in the following 2009 season sought to protect goalies but instead overprotected them, setting a precedent that could not be touched whether the contact was accidental or not. These are some examples of where the DOPS and NHL show how they are very reactionary entities and therefore focus on issues as they arise in order to promote and ensure player safety. With this the DOPS has many times proven ineffective because of the many infractions it has overlooked and given illegal plays attention that came much too late. This often feeds into the problems of no or little punishment to clearly cheap and nasty hits

The other question naturally is who is enforcing the league rules and is supposed to guarantee player safety, in other words who makes the decisions and explains why a player gets a suspension or not. The DOPS has been and is run by former NHL players with questionable records, Brandon Shanahan, Stephane Quintal and now George Parros. Parros used to be an enforcer in his NHL career. He played 474 games and averaged 5:56 minutes of ice time per game. He accumulated 1,092 penalty minutes and had 169 fights. He was what is called a tough guy. The same is true for Shanahan and Quintal. It does send out the wrong message. Just considering the optics. You have ex-enforcers who used their fists to police the game in charge of discipline, safety and health of players. Seriously?

Fans, players, coaches and owners know that nothing will change to the of player safety as long as there are some players are “more equal than others” along with the DOPS on somewhat of a time delay with a tendency to be very selective in its decisions and punishments. The NHL is farther away than ever from a change of the culture of the game. Just ask Antipin.

Suggested readings:

Momenian, Donya. “NHL must address players’ safety without resorting to suspensions”. Collegiate Times. October 25, 2017. Accessed April 8, 2018. http://www.collegiatetimes.com/opinion/nhl-must-address-players-safety-without-resorting-to-suspensions/article_a13b7110-b99a-11e7-9e08-0b0f0e535f40.html

Cyrgails, Brett. “Putting friends in charge of player safety is an NHL gaffe”. New York Post. January 19, 2018. Accessed April 8, 2018. https://nypost.com/2018/01/19/putting-friends-in-charge-of-player-safety-is-an-nhl-gaffe/

Harrington, Mike. “Housley fuming, Sabres players surprised Hartnell didn’t get suspended”. Buffalo News: Hockey. April 2, 2018. Accessed April 8, 2018. http://buffalonews.com/2018/04/02/housley-fuming-sabres-players-surprised-hartnell-didnt-get-suspended/

Wyshynski, Greg. “Why Brad Marchand was fined – and not suspended – for his cross-check against the Flyers”. ESPN. April 3, 2018. Accessed April 8, 2018. http://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/23004184/nhl-why-brad-marchand-was-fined-not-suspended-cross-check-philadelphia-flyers

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