Cracking Down On the NHL’s Supplementary Discipline

Posted: May 5, 2012 in Hockey, Sports
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Long odds: this bookie puts the odds of Ovechkin being suspended at 50-1.

What are the odds that Alexander Ovechkin gets suspended by the NHL for his late, high hit on Dan Girardi in today’s game?  And if he does get suspended, what are the odds that it will be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist?

When trying to answer these questions we might look at the precedent set earlier in these playoffs by NHL Discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

For similar hits in these playoffs, Pittsburgh’s James Neal – a 40 goal scorer this season – got a single game for two high hits on the Flyers’ Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux (coincidentally both of these players were making the Penguins look foolish earlier in the game).  Phoenix’s Raffi Torres – a player not known for being integral to his team – got 25 games for a carbon copy of Ovechkin’s hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa.  If this kind of inconsistency isn’t enough to make betting on the Ovechkin hit a prohibitive endeavour, consider that Girardi, like Couturier and Giroux, seemed to be in good health after being hit as opposed to Hossa who had to leave the ice on a stretcher.

Given the precedent Shanahan has set, my money, what little of it there is, is on Ovechkin getting no suspension at all – as disgustingly hypocritical as that might be to the NHL’s stated desire to crack down on hits to the head.  Let’s consider the things Shanahan will likely look at: the hit itself, if there was a penalty called, who was delivered the check, and who got hit.  Ovechkin’s hit was obviously high as he left his feet and clearly made contact with Girardi’s head.  Because it was so obvious Ovechkin got a 2-minute penalty on the play, meaning that he has, under the NHL’s interpretation, already been punished for his actions.

The other considerations of who delivered the check and who got hit are what the suspension will hinge upon.  Given that Ovechkin is one of Gary Bettman’s show ponies and Dan Girardi is a talented, but fairly anonymous defenceman I highly doubt that Brendan Shanahan is going to risk drawing the ire of his boss and suspending one of the most-hyped players in the NHL.  Also, if we compare Ovechkin’s hit to those of Neal and Torres it is easy to see that a top-line player – even a repeat offender such as Neal – is treated much differently than a fourth-line player such as Torres, especially when the fourth-liner takes out a top-line player such as Marian Hossa.

Head of NHL Discipline Brendan Shanahan. This is exactly the look I imagine on his face when he tries to decide on a suspension.

Thus, from the NHL’s viewpoint the Ovechkin hit is an open-and-shut case: star player + anonymous victim + penalty called = no suspension.  Then wipe your hands, make a wishy-washy public statement, and carry on with the hypocritcal discipline system that currently exists.

However, I might be sensationalizing the NHL’s reaction a little bit.  It might be more realistic to say that Ovechkin will get a one-game, slap on the wrist suspension designed solely to deflect some of the criticism that would surely follow if Ovechkin was not suspended at all.  I can hear Brendan Shanahan now: “the NHL does not condone hits to the head and as such we are suspending Alexander Ovechkin for one game.”  But such a suspension will be the biggest joke since Gary Bettman – he of the head that resembles the basketball with which he is more familiar – was appointed as Commissioner of the NHL.

All in all, this analysis of the possible Ovechkin suspension is just a build-up to a recognition that the NHL’s discipline system is deeply flawed.  Star players get special treatment, especially those that Gary Bettman has a special interest in due to their status as poster boys of the league (e.g. Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin – all of whom have gotten away with suspension-worthy offenses in these playoffs).  Scrubs get the book thrown at them, especially where there are already rumblings of dissatisfaction among fans that the suspensions have not been harsh enough.  Essentially, discipline in the NHL has devolved into a numbers game.  The numbers in question being how many bums a certain player can put into seats; those who draw the crowds can do no wrong and those who are anonymous to the general fan serve as examples for the NHL to pretend that it cares about cracking down on illegal hits.

In business terms, this might seem like a sound policy: protect your prize assets and jettison the unneeded waste.  Even in the terms of an NHL general manager, you sign up your key players for as long as possible and bring in guys from the minors to replace those that are disposable.  Star players are where the value is, so why not protect them?

Gary Bettman demonstrates the decreasing patience real NHL fans have with his Commissioner-ship.

The fact is that while the fair-weather hockey fan that Bettman is so desperate to keep coming to games and buying merchandise stands to benefit from this policy of letting star players play, the dedicated hockey fan who keeps the league afloat and generates revenue in the NHL’s key markets (i.e. the key markets who share revenue with the teams in the southern United States that Bettman is so keen to keep around) is becoming more and more dissatisfied with the laughable inconsistency of the NHL’s attempts at discipline.  The league has made it clear that they want to clean up head checks, but they refuse to suspend players in any meaningful way unless they are scrubs.

Despite my frustrations with the league’s inability to discipline players consistently, it wouldn’t be much of an argument that the dedicated hockey fan is getting fed up if there’s no evidence of such feeling.  However, let’s rewind to the reaction to the Raffi Torres suspension.  Coming only a couple days after James Neal’s hits, Torres’ hit was directly compared to those of Neal.  So, when Torres was given 25 games, the outcry on message boards everywhere wasn’t about the suspension being too high or too low, but rather that it was supremely hypocritical for the league to suspend Neal for only one game for two similar hits and then hit Torres with 25 games a couple days later.  Similarly, after the brawl-filled Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, the message boards were filled not with comments about the skill level on display in the game, but rather why Sidney Crosby can start two line brawls and get away with it and why Aaron Asham got a slap on the wrist for his brutal assault on Brayden Schenn.

The sentiment is that these inconsistent suspensions that favour Gary Bettman’s prized assets are ruining the game and are only serving to exacerbate the problem of headshots by making them fair game for enough who earns a big enough paycheque.  You can punish scrubs and repeat offenders all you want, but until you crack down on the stars who commit the same crimes headshots will still exist.  This is why, given the chance Brendan Shanahan has with the Ovechkin case above, I’d give Ovechkin the same 25 game deal given to Torres and show players around the league that if you don’t respect your fellow players, then you get the boot.

Bertuzzi v Moore: the ugly ramifications of player-enforced discipline.

The alternative is that you let the players police themselves.  You can remove the instigator penalty (which was a joke to begin with) and let the goons of the league enforce martial law when their stars get hit high.  However, letting the players police themselves leads to incidents such as the one that ended Steve Moore’s career at the hands of Todd Bertuzzi.  Tempers flare, safety is ignored, and blood is sought.  Eventually the retaliation, the martial law, becomes more unsafe than the initial hits were to begin with.  That’s not the kind of hockey the fans, the players, and especially the league really want.  But it is the only alternative in trying to clean up the game and cut down on headshots.

Ultimately the moral here is for the NHL to smarten up and discipline players in a consistent and appropriate manner.  Stop being scared that you’ll alienate the fair-weather fans and realize that in placating them you alienate the dedicated fans who have stuck with the league since the original Winnipeg Jets, through the expansion era, and through the lockout.  Stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with regards to cracking down on illegal and unsafe hits.  It’s pretty simple.

And while you’re at it, NHL, why not crack down on hits from behind as well?


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