Friday, 6 April 2012

The NHL's ridiculous system of discipline

I've addressed in the past how the NHL has a bizarre system of on-ice discipline. It is accepted that the referees will not catch every infraction, despite the relatively recent addition of a second referee and extra set of eyes, due to the pace of the game, so two current practices were evolved.

One is that the players will police the game themselves, in order to keep a lid on dirty plays committed out of the officials' sight. This creates a league where intimidation, thuggery and outright assaults are tolerated to a great degree as a necessary or even noble product of the game. So that a big, tough player is prized more highly by General Managers than a smaller more talented player.

Another is that the referees will 'manage' the game, chatting constantly with the players on the ice, directing them as to what is expected, telling to stop hooking or freezing the puck or cross-checking or else they'd have to whistle them for a penalty. Often, an infraction isn't really an infraction unless the referee has had a chance to enjoin the guilty party to cease and desist. You hear them all the time: "Let go! Let go!"

"Keep it moving! Keep it moving!"

"Easy with the stick... Next one I'm going to have to call it."

It brings us to ridiculous situations like today's announcements that Brooks Orpik will not receive extra discipline for his potentially career-ending knee-on-knee check delivered to Derek Stepan. Mr. Orpik is the exact type of rugged, hard-nosed player with limited skill and mobility who is perennially chosen over the more talented Martin St. Louis of this game.

The play itself is unremarkable in that it happens routinely in the NHL. A player lines up an opponent for a big open ice hit, invariably coming straight at him. The other player notices this, sometimes at the last minute, and veers to one side or the other. The would-be bodychecker will then be at a disadvantage if he misses him, since he will be out of position with the puck carrier behind him and with a clear path to the net. So the bodychecker, who cannot allow this to happen, out of a partial reflex and competitive spirit, reaches out to at least put some kind of a hit on him and slow him down, and this unfailingly results in the knee-on-knee collision.

Mr. Orpiks received a five minute penalty and a game misconduct for his hit, but no further suspension, even though these are the kind of hits that rupture ACL and cartilage in players' knees and ends careers. This hit is seen as a by-product of the physical game, regrettable but unavoidable.

Meanwhile, adding to the ridiculousness, Wild defenceman Nate Prosser received a one game suspension for a head butt to Jamal Mayers. This incident occured during a tedious, meaningless scrum in front of the net, hard on the heels of players 'rushing the net' when the goaltender obviously had the puck frozen under his glove. During the scrum, Mr. Mayers, who is precisely the kind of untalented mugger the NHL favours, swatted at Nate Prosser's head and face with his right hand. For a moment both players stood face to face with their sticks and hands tangled in front of them, at which point Mr. Prosser reached out with his head and headbutted Mr. Mayers in the face. Mr. Mayers suffered a cut lip in this exchange, but the intensity of the headbutt would have been described by apologists as nothing more than a 'love tap' if contact had been made with the glove of Mr. Prosser instead. If he had crosschecked/gloved Mr. Mayers in the face with more energy and purpose, and if Mr. Mayers had retaliated in kind, this would have been seen as good spirited competition by two warriors trying to send a message. At most they would have received cancelling two-minute minors.

Again, the message is clear. Players like Mr. Orpik and Mr. Mayers will be celebrated by the league and their thuggery will be tolerated and explained in the context of murky concepts like honour and toughness. If Mr. Orpik almost ends a player's career due to his need to play physically to continue to have a career in the NHL, that's the cost of doing business. You can't have an omelet without breaking a few eggs. If Mr. Mayers heads to the net and mugs it up after the play when the whistle has blown, that's just spirited play and par for the course, he's making sure the goalie isn't too comfortable. Elbows, punches, facewashes, crosschecks, these are just tactics. But if a headbutt is delivered, that's outside The Code, and will be punished. One type of violence is cool, another is beyond the pale.

The NHL can't seem to get out of its own way. It promised us that it would favour a more open, spectacular product as an apologia after the lockout, that offence and skill and speed would be championed, as the NFL had done, and the NBA, and Rugby Union, among other sports. We bought it. Bob Gainey bought it.

Instead, the inmates are running the asylum, with the Bruins family having taken over the Board of Governors and the Ministry of Information like the Borgias with the Holy See. The goon is ascendent in the house of the NHL. The Flyers and Rangers have put the Penguins and the league on notice as to what will happen during the playoffs.

It would be so simple to avoid two incidents like these. Make each offence a strict liability, where the player's intent or the resultant damage or injury doesn't factor into whether a suspension will be imposed. The responsibility for preventing a knee on knee collision rests with the bodychecker. If he lines up an opponent and connects like Scott Stevens or Alexei Emelin, fair game. If however his target observes him and ducks, the bodychecker must let him go, and can't reach out with an elbow or knee. If he does connect with an elbow or knee on knee, a minimum sentence is incurred, regardless of the situation, or that the opponent wasn't stretchered off the ice. Punish transgressors harshly, to change the mindset. The players must know that there's no tolerance, no margin for error with these moves, to change the culture.

Same thing with blows to the head. No matter that it's delivered by an elbow or gloved hand or bare hand or stick or whatever, they're not allowed. A glancing blow, a love tap, a vigourous shove, a hard gloved punch à la Milan Lucic on Mike Komisarek, they're all no gos. No facewashes. No contact with the face or head of the opponent is tolerated. Period. Nate Prosser can't headbutt Jamal Mayers, but neither can Jamal Mayers swat his head. After the whistle when the play is dead. No excuses, no deviation. Game misconducts and game suspensions are automatic, with escalators for repeat offenders. Problem solved.

These issues are too intractable for Gary Bettman and Bill Daly and the feckless Colin Campbell to solve, however, occupied as they are trying to convince the authorities in Phoenix that they have three, no four! interested parties to purchase the Coyotes, just dying to, right around the corner. But it really isn't that complicated. The lawsuits are just about the corner boys, how about you at least put up a sham front of proactiveness.

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