Pants, Pads, and Protocols

The NHL has made a lot of changes in recent years. Some have been good, some pointless, and others could use a bit more attention. Of course, the three-on-three overtime addition has been a roaring success. It created a fast paced and highly competitive five minutes of free hockey no matter whether two contenders went head-to-head or the teams were perhaps a bit mismatched because it allowed both teams to ice their three best players.

While the Goalies will almost unanimously pan the streamlined goalie pants and shorter pads, for the average fan it is unlikely that they are even aware of the changes if they weren’t told about them. The thought process was to create more scoring, but there are certainly other ways to go about creating offense. However, that is a whole different issue.

The big issue here is that the league thought best to make these alterations when their concussion protocols and player safety standards are sorely lacking. A perfect example occurred a week ago when Corey Crawford endured every goaltender’s worst nightmare.

A Shea Weber slap shot to the face.

While the Blackhawks staff quickly darted onto the ice to check on their netminder, it appeared that the conversation might have gone something like this.

“You good? Can you play?”

“I can play.”

“Good.”

While Crawford continued to play outstanding hockey stopping a total of 40 (of 42) shots, this was probably worth a little further evaluation. In fact, the league’s concussion spotters that are supposedly in attendance for every game should have swooped in on Crow faster than the Wicked Witch of the West on a pair of ruby slippers.

They did not! They must have been eating a soft serve or checking their text messages.

Even if Crawford or any player that takes a slapshot between the eyes says they are fine, and appears to be asymptomatic, it would probably be in all parties best interest to pull him. If the player is deemed healthy after the standard concussion protocol has been followed, then they can be made available to return to the game.

Yes, it can change momentum, and the players rarely want to leave the game, but great decision making isn’t exactly the hallmark of a head injury.

Recently, the NHL has worked towards cracking down on head injuries with player safety and the implementation of concussion spotters to enforce concussion protocols, but the effort is still exceedingly inconsistent.

Considering the NHL’s recent legal issues with former players regarding concussions and those of other leagues, this should be a top priority, but so far it has not been consistently enforced. As a concussion spotter, it really shouldn’t be a complicated process given that it is their primary role. It’s not like hockey is a boxing match where everyone on the ice is getting pummeled in the head repeatedly.

In fact, more often than not the spotters are getting paid to watch a hockey game where occasionally someone may meet the criteria for them to be called into action.

Of course, some hard hits could result in a concussion that both the trainers and spotters miss because the plays happen so quickly, but a 90 some mile an hour slap shot to the face should be automatic.

The NHL needs to do better. Whether that means putting off-duty EMT’s in the crowd or some other qualified individual this type of situation simply can’t be missed.

Player Safety Pandemonium

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DoPS) is frequently derided for its lack of consistency across the board, and it is no doubt a tough job to police a dozen or more teams on any given night. However, there are a lot of measures that the league could take to help with continuity and it is not the fantastic mockery that is Brendan Shanahan‘s Wheel of Justice.

A google or twitter search of “NHL Wheel of Justice” will deliver a thorough commentary on the state of the NHL’s DoPS, but the biggest assault on the department is that it is currently run by three former players with 4,002 career penalty minutes and 293 fights in the NHL between them.

Yes, that’s right. Chris Pronger, Stephane Quintal, and George Parros are now in charge of handing down punishment for the stuff they cut their NHL teeth doing on a nightly basis.

They are the NHL Overlords in charge of meting out justice when players cross the line from playing hard to decapitating their opponents because really, what does it take to get banned for life?

Raffi Torres certainly tried, and it never happened. He had the benefit of two NHL DoPS administrations, and neither one delivered the death blow for the league’s most prolific rogue shark of this generation.

Nope, that was a bum knee and lack of interest.

The truly alarming fact here is that were it not for an injury, there is a good chance that some team would have doled out a minimum contract for Torres’ services. And considering none of his previous five suspensions seemed to deter him (including a 25 game ban that was reduced to 21, and a 41 game ban most recently) there is a good chance he could have injured another player with his brand of hockey.

Enabler’s Punishment

In some ways, teams become enablers by supporting violent repeat offenders, when the evidence clearly contradicts their statements that it was accidental or that a player with a long history of injuring opponents is misunderstood. Of course, General Managers and Coaches don’t want to hang their players out to dry, but some offenses really should be indefensible.

There is a simple way to deter teams from rewarding violent repeat offenders with contracts when they don’t seem to learn from past mistakes and lengthy suspensions. In essence, it would tell the teams, either you get your player in line, or there will be a direct consequence for the team as well as the player.

If the team is willing to take a risk on such a player, then perhaps the team should be punished by taking a fine equivalent to the players, with the teams fine coming off of the salary cap for the next season and paid directly to the NHL Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund as the offending players fines do.

Granted, this is not a substantial amount in many cases, but if you have a repeat offender these fines can add up, and a 41 game suspension can really make a dent in the team’s cap. Especially when the team is constantly up against the cap ceiling. This could essentially end the role of goons in hockey, but it could also deter players like Brad Marchand from slew-footing an opponent or delivering an illegal hit, or players like Gustav Nyquist and Duncan Keith from taking a retaliatory shot at an opponent as they did in the last year.

This becomes a much bigger deterrent for teams when marquee players with massive contracts are involved. Players like Marchand, Keith, Nyquist, and Corey Perry could seriously hinder their teams future and this would likely curb some of those tendencies. There will still be guys that won’t be bothered by this addition, but you better believe that the teams will be a lot less tolerant of anyone who can’t adhere to the rules.

If this had been implemented last season, Raffi Torres would have cost San Jose $440,860 (ScoutingTheRef), their current cap space is $426,945 (CapFriendly) so they would have an overage. Do you think a team would avoid signing a serial offender to their team with that kind of damage?

It would be a shock if they didn’t.

In the same vein, don’t you think that a leader like Keith might try a little harder to rein in his anger if he knew it would cost his chronically cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks $148,883 against the cap this season. Currently, the Blackhawks have $592,583, but that type of fine could have impacted Stan Bowman’s decisions ahead of the season as they have several players with potential bonuses already threatening overages and they may not have been able to extend Russian phenom Artemi Panarin before the season opened as they did.

However, that’s not the biggest problem. The bigger problem is that the Department of Player Safety is outrageously inconsistent with the disciplinary actions they dole out. Unless it happens to involve officials.

As we’ve seen with Dennis Wideman (ten games reduced from 20 last season), Anthony DeAngelo (three games this season), and Antoine Vermette (ten games this season) the Department of Player Safety adhered to the set guidelines for abuse of an official even though the three were markedly different incidents.

While it may be more difficult to set strict guidelines on player violations against other players because of the frequency and the sheer number of bodies on the ice any given night, it can and should be done.

DoPS does implement automatic suspensions for contact or abuse of officials, multiple game misconducts, three instigator penalties, or two in the playoffs in one season. In addition, instigator penalties in the last five minutes of play, or in an overtime period can also result in automatic suspensions. Finally, leaving the bench during an altercation also warrants an automatic suspension.

However, when a player targets another players head, slashes him in the face or causes a serious injury with a slew-foot or late hit to name a few, there will be a hearing that could result in a warning, fines, a game or two, or six plus in the event an in-person interview is requested.

While an in-person hearing does have the possibility of a six-game suspension or longer, a phone hearing can really be anything the DoPS feels like doling out, and for the most part, it is anyone’s guess how they’ll deal with the player. DoPS rarely fails to baffle just about everyone in terms of what gets handed down. In fact with this trio in charge, it could even be an ‘atta boy’!

You might be asking yourself, how do they fix it then? They’re human and prone to errors, and you are not wrong, but if there were guidelines in place, it would cut down on those kinds of errors considerably provided they adhere to them.

For example, if a player retaliates with a stick to the face that player should get at least ten games. If you can get ten for grazing an official as Vermette did a few weeks ago, how can another player get six games for brutally slashing an opposing player in the face? It simply makes no sense. Are the Refs more important to the game? Then why are they protected to a higher extent than a player? And guess what, players are a lot less prone to go after a ref. That could be a coincidence, or it could be that no player wants to miss ten to 20 games.

The bottom line is that players on the ice deserve the same measure of respect as the officials. That doesn’t mean every bad hit warrants ten games, but any hit that’s deemed retaliatory in nature certainly should be.

There is just no excuse for it. So, let’s propose just a few guidelines here.

Retaliatory hits in the form of a slash, head shot, etc. – a minimum of ten games
A hit after plays are whistled dead – a minimum of four games
Boarding call with injuries involved – a minimum of six games
Deliberate hit on a goalie – a minimum of six games

Some of this may seem harsh, but you better believe it would deter players if the suspensions are lengthy and their team suffers a monetary punishment in addition to losing the player at fault.

There are two final pieces to consider. First of all, first-time offenders should not get a pass for the infractions listed above. If it were the players first time abusing an official, it would still warrant an automatic game misconduct and subsequent suspension. So why do players get a slap on the wrist or a fine for abuse of another player?

We aren’t talking about a puppy that peed on the carpet. No one is saying, “look what you did!” as they rub the players face in the mess they made. These are grown men who understand that actions have consequences.

The league can hand out fines all day long for diving and tripping, but telling a young player that it’s alright if it’s the first time they retaliated by taking a headshot or say hitting another player with their helmet (because that happened and resulted in a puny fine), or that they are not a repeat offender sets a bad precedent. If you commit the crime, you can do the time. In addition, by definition, the term repeat offender indicates a history of bad behavior and the thought that they are reformed and the slate gets wiped clean in 18 months is crazy. If by some chance a repeat offender is reformed, then it won’t matter if the term never expires because they won’t commit the offense. Plus, there is always the option to appeal if the player feels they were punished too severely.

The second thing that should change is the idea that a single playoff game counts as two games in DoPS code. I’m sorry, but perhaps the NHL needs to retake remedial math. One does not equal two, and if a player is dumb enough to put their team’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, then so be it. One game is one game. Period. End of story.

In addition, if an injury occurred and the player on the receiving end of the offense can not play for an extended time, how is it fair that the player delivering the hit is back in the lineup ahead of the injured player? If the team loses their player for the playoffs, then the offender should not be the beneficiary of the 1+0=2 clause the league seems so fond of using with regards to the playoffs.

God forbid a player ends their team’s playoff run early because of their absence, but don’t you think they would try a little harder to walk away from a potential altercation or avoid delivering a bad hit when tempers flare? And, if they don’t, teams won’t be so eager to bring them into the fold or keep them around.

This is a violent, fast paced game and mistakes are going to happen no matter how well prepared the league is, but at the end of the day, the player’s and official’s safety should always come first. Once the NHL and Department of Player Safety has that well in hand, then they can start messing with bigger nets, the long change, and whatever else they can dream up to increase scoring.

Addressing the NHL’s Player Safety Issue

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