Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Guys Who Run the League Are Fools

Or, The NHL Shows the Wrong Kind of Consistency.
Or, Is This How the Culture is Supposed to Change?
Or, Seriously, A Dirty Gesture is as Bad as a Dirty Hit?
Or, What the Hell is Wrong With You Guys?

The NHL wants to crack down on concussions, they say. Their goal, they say, is to change the culture of the game so players respect one another and stop the questionable hits.

The NHL is lying.

Actions speak louder than words. Really, if you ignore everything that's said, and pay more attention to what's done, it becomes painfully obvious what the NHL's number one concern is, and it's got nothing to do with player safety.

It's all about image.

Take, for example, the two suspensions the NHL just handed out, almost simultaneously. Niklas Hjalmarsson's brutal hit on Jason Pominville received two games. James Wisniewski's apparently pantomiming the act of enjoying a large, delicious popsicle also received two games. Let's compare the two acts.

On one hand, you have a guy who sent a player to the hospital by brutally checking him from behind into the boards. The hit was not only boarding, but also interference, as Pominville had not yet received the puck, although it was traveling towards him. In other words, he had little reason to even suspect that a check was forthcoming. This is essentially the same kind of hit that Joel Quennville called "the most dangerous hit in hockey" -- a boarding hit on someone who doesn't have the puck. Pominville was escorted off the ice in a stretcher.

On the other hand, James Wisniewski was on television and he made a gesture that, if you have a dirty mind, could be read as something obscene. Everybody saw it, unless they didn't watch the game, in which case you saw a really blurry James Wisniewski apparently doing something, or not. It was so horrible that they couldn't show it in replays. When it comes to sexual innuendo, hockey coverage apparently isn't allowed to be as racy as Tyra Banks on her talk show or Spongebob Squarepants. As Brendan Morrison observed, you're "under a microscope" as a professional athlete, and held to a higher standard. Sure, you need to represent the game well. I can't pretend I don't know why you shouldn't do what Wisniewski did.

Still, when the two offenses are given equal punishment, they're put on equal footing. According to the NHL, blindsiding a player with a dangerous and illegal hit that sends them to the hospital and can potentially end their career is exactly as bad as pantomiming something dirty. What message does that send?

The reality is that the NHL suspends players based more on the image of the league than the safety of the players. Hjalmarsson is an important piece on a team that just won the Cup, and those players tend to get free rides. For example, explain to me the difference between this horrible, 30-game suspension and this not-nearly-as-bad 8-game suspension. If you couldn't see the difference (besides that Simon stomped on Ruutu's skate, whereas Pronger stomped on Kesler's calf), it was that Chris Pronger was on a team that had just won the Cup, and they were 9 games out of the playoffs. The NHL makes a big deal about marketing defending Cup champions -- if Pronger isn't there, it hurts the marketing and leads to questions that hurt the league's image. Initially, the NHL's reaction was no suspension at all, but after massive outcry by fans of the game, the NHL "received new footage" of the stomp and decided it was suspension-worthy.

It's not news that the NHL seems to have more difficulty suspending offensive stars than it does fourth-line grinders, so this blog feels like it's beating a tired drum. This evidence shows, though, that the league is less willing to suspend players when it will hurt the NHL's image, and more than willing to suspend players they feel have damaged their image.

Sean Avery got 6 games for his admittedly obscene comments. Six games means the NHL considered it worse than this. And this. And this. And this. And even these.

The league doesn't want to suspend these hits, because violence sells. If a hit like Hjalmarsson's was met with a 15-game suspension, players would think twice about those kind of hits. Bettman has said over and over that they don't want to create an environment when players are afraid to make clean checks. He's said over and over that they don't want to take hitting or fighting out of the game. Violence sells. Anger sells. Viciousness sells. So they avoid long suspensions if they can, unless they're dealing with nobodies like Chris Simon, Jesse Boulerice, or (at the time) Steve Downie.

Willie Mitchell argued that the league has difficulty staying consistent. I disagree. I think they've shown a great deal of consistency, in that there are three kinds of infractions: the ones they feel they can ignore without getting into too much trouble, the ones they suspend because they have to for image's sake, and the ones that actually bother them because they make hockey look bad. You can make hockey look bad with a brutal hit that's highly publicized, or apparently, just making a rude gesture on television. Either way, it's clear that they care about how an incident (and their response) looks a whole lot more than they care how it threatens player safety.

This is about as short-sighted and foolish as you can get, because the dangerous hits and (seemingly) inconsistent discipline for it will be more damaging to the league's reputation than any apparent reduction of intensity that occurs when players start playing safely. More to the point, they've got a moral obligation to protect their players and they're failing to meet it.

As far as the players are concerned, though, the message is clear -- if you're so angry that you feel like maybe making a gesture implying that another player might enjoy popsicle-related activity, you'd be better off just cross-checking him in the face.

Basically, my points boil down to three things. First, in punishing image problems with the same number of games that they do dirty hits and safety issues, they cheapen the whole disciplinary process by using it to defend the league's image rather than the players. Second, that the contrast in suspension severity makes it just as palatable to a player to crosscheck a guy in the face as it is to make a rude gesture or say something off-color. Third, that the only consistency in NHL discipline has been that they're far more concerned with damage to their reputation than damage to players on the ice.


  1. First off Colin Campbell is a Joke. They only react to certain calls. It doesn't matter what happened or when it happened usually the suspension matches the number of ambulance attendants it takes to roll the player off the ice.

    Seriously the NHL disciplinary committee and the NHL head office don't care unless Bill daley and Gary Bettman climb out of bed in the morning, slide into their silken robes put on their bunny slippers and turn the TV's on in their respective homes.

    If they see something bad that happened in the NHL last night they make a quick reactionary call to Colin Campbell.

    Then the reactionary lap dog quickly meters out discipline that has no Precedent at all.

    Only so Colin can receive a well versed Atta-boy from his handlers..

  2. 100% agreed. In my book, I wouldn't suspend anybody for a gesture. It cheapens the suspensions for actual on ice offences - which seem to be the same length

  3. I'm fine with suspending the gesture, as obviously the NHL wants to avoid lewd gestures that can't be shown on TV, but I agree that it's a double-standard. It's the same as movie ratings: movies with a plethora of violence and gore can get a PG-13 rating, but a couple f-bombs is enough to get it an R rating.

    It's the same with network television: you can get away with violence, but you can't get away with sex and swearing. The NHL wants to be on network television, therefore it can be violent, but it can't be lewd, according to network television's standards of lewdness.

    However, while I agree with the argument in principle, the Hjalmarsson hit is not as clear-cut as you make it seem. It's suspendable, definitely, but you can see how it's the result of what the league likes to call a "hockey play." Ill-advised checks and such that are the result of "hockey plays" are not going to get punished as severely as actions (such as gestures) that are not the result of "hockey plays."

    Basically, what I'm trying to say in as un-succinct a manner I can manage, is that I can see the NHL's point-of-view in this instance. Overall, I agree, but the comparison of Hjalmarsson and Wisniewski (the spelling of which is unfairly hard to remember) is, in my mind, not the best example of the NHL's hypocrisy. The other examples you draw out in the post, however, do clearly illustrate it.

  4. I never appreciated the "hockey play" argument because if you eliminate the boarding and the injury, it's still interference. The NHL has clearly defined what constitutes puck possession (being the last person to touch the puck) and Pominville didn't touch the puck.

    The prospect of players going around blindsiding anyone they think MIGHT get the puck isn't a palatable one, and that Hjalmarsson correctly predicted where the puck would go in this case doesn't make it much better. If the puck bounces off the boards out into the ice, and Pominville still gets hit, does that make it any worse?

    It's sort of like what Ryan Miller said -- it doesn't matter if you were trying to make a smart hockey play, you get suspended for what you did. What he did was hit a guy who didn't see him coming before the guy even had the puck.

    Watch the Wisniewski on Seabrook hit. Look where the puck is in relation to Seabrook. Not only is the puck closer to Seabrook, he's actually facing the player who hits him. I don't see how Quennville can call one hit "the most dangerous hit in hockey," and question whether the other one is even a penalty. I again agree with Ryan Miller in that there needs to be a change in the culture of the game, and this certainly isn't the way to do it.

  5. Seriously, you're comparing the Wisniewski on Seabrook hit to this one? They're apples and oranges. The Wisniewski hit involves a player coming from the blue line to the goal line to hit a player who not only had not yet touched the puck, he wasn't going to because it was in the possession of a different player, and Wisniewski hit Seabrook's head into the boards using his forearm. Even more than that, it was seen as retribution for an earlier hit by Seabrook. It was a perfect storm of everything the NHL doesn't want to see from hitting, except that it wasn't from behind.

    In this hit, Hjalmarsson came a short distance to a player who was about to receive the puck (it was a foot from his blade) and the principal point of contact was shoulder-to-shoulder. In addition, it was simply the result of a hockey play as Hjalmarsson was, essentially, pinching down the boards to keep a puck in the offensive zone.

    Yes, Hjalmarsson came at the wrong angle and yes, he came a moment too soon. Therefore, it's a penalty and a suspension. But I think the two-game suspension is appropriate because of the reasons I listed above. Sure, Quenneville is out to lunch if he disagrees that it should be a penalty and a suspension, but to draw a parallel between the Wisniewski hit based solely on the fact that the puck was "near" Seabrook when he got hit is completely unreasonable.

  6. Actually, if you watch the Seabrook hit, the puck just bounced off Seabrook's skate to another player. Wisniewski said afterward that he thought Seabrook had the puck, and looking at the replay, it's sort of clear why. That said, the puck was in someone else's possession for a while afterward and Wisniewski had plenty of time and should have let up. It was definitely a suspension.

    I'm not saying that the Pominville hit was definitely worse than the Seabrook hit, as there were other factors, as you pointed out. Wisniewski had a history and there was reason to believe his hit was retaliatory. Still, they were both a hit on someone who didn't have the puck, which was the point Quennville made when he said the Seabrook hit was so dangerous. When Hjalmarsson comes back from suspension, Quennville will tell him, "You did good, it was a clean hit as far as I'm concerned." That's ridiculous.

    Hjalmarsson's hit was, as I said, in anticipation of a player getting the puck. That's a really dangerous thing to do. If you're wrong, you're just hitting an unsuspecting player for the sheer sake of hitting them.

    I agree that Hjalmarsson's intentions were pure, but the outrage over the existence of a suspension at all convinces me further that the mindset needs to change. Even if you're trying to make a hockey play, the fact remains you broke the rules in a dangerous and stupid way.

    And that doing so is equivalent to a vulgar gesture in terms of NHL suspensions.

  7. Fair enough. I see your point and agree that your argument is valid. I don't agree completely, but that's fine.

    I'm not sure it's fair to assume that what Quenneville says to the media is the same as what is said in the room. To the media, he defends his player and shows that he's on the side of the players. In the room may be a different story altogether, as he may berate him for making a stupid play that cost the team a powerplay and the use of a top-four defender for two games when they desperately need him with Brian Campbell on the shelf until mid-November.

  8. Solid debate.

    The bigger problem is that all future suspensions are now going to be compared to the idiotic suspensions that Colin "Lord Chaos" Campbell has doled out in the past. As a result of his inconsistent and idiotic body of work, you will discover that, compared to similar punishments, no suspension is ever going to be long enough OR short enough. There are confusing precedents all over the place. By now, we should be able to comfortably say how many games any suspension will get based on past offences. Not so with Lord Chaos as a disciplinarian.

    In this case, I agree slightly with both you guys. There are indeed some stupid people in the NHL front office, but I don't think this incident is the time to point that out so vigorously. To my mind, Qris, they almost got it right.

    But only almost. For PR purposes, the Hjalmarsson hit NEEDS to be given more games than the delicious popsicle pantomime, specifically because they need to reiterate that, this season, headshots will not be tolerated. Headshots are the major issue.

    I would have done 3 and 2, respectively.

    The pantomime was hilarious and certainly not unique. Crap like that happens all the time. But this one was caught on the broadcast on national television and you can't have that. 2 games is about right for it, but the problem is you can't compare it to Avery's suspension. That one was a ridiculous overpunishment. It deserved 1-3 games, not six.

  9. Hjalmarsson's hit wasn't a headshot. It was boarding. The contact was made to the shoulder and back.

    As for Sean Avery, what he said was off the ice and pre-meditated. It wasn't in the heat of the moment, like Wisniewski, who clearly acted before he thought things through. Avery took the time to call over reporters and make sure that enough people were going to hear exactly what he said. Sure, as a twenty-something who has been raised with the internet constantly reminding me of the depths of humanity, I wasn't the least bit bothered by his "sloppy seconds" comment, but I understand why it got the reaction it did and I understand why it got six games and Wisniewski got two. Completely different situations.

  10. Bah! I disagree on the grounds that I refuse to be wrong!

    By the by, Qris, I made some small aesthetic changes. Hope you aren't easily offended by the flexing of my editorial muscles.

  11. As an aside, popsicles really are delicious. Especially the Real Fruit ones. Good stuff.

  12. No worries, Harrison. Editing's fine.

    As to the premeditation of Sean Avery's comments, so what? It was a premeditated media huff, not a premeditated hit to the head with intent to injure. Guys have been taken out for whole seasons on plays that were suspended for less than the two words Sean Avery said to the media.

    In a way, I think there's a problem with the CBA that the NHL can only fine $2,500, so to really send a message they need to suspend for games. Avery's comments and Wisniewski's love of frozen delights aren't hockey offenses so they shouldn't be punished with games, but they need to be disciplined with more than $2,500.

    That said, both the Wisniewski suspension and the Avery suspension show an equation of image vs. safety. Sean Avery wanted to make Dion Phaneuf angry, and by proxy, the rest of the team. He chose to do so with public trash talk. The irony is, if he instead decided to physically injure Phaneuf with a dirty hit, the suspension would (statistically) have been less. With his history, maybe what would normally be a 2 game suspension would become a 4 or 5 game suspension, but it's easy to come up with a scenario in which he takes Phaneuf out of the game and potentially out of the lineup for a time, gets the entire Flames team to lose focus, and gets less of a suspension.

    Basically, my points boil down to three things. First, in punishing image problems with the same number of games that they do dirty hits and safety issues, they cheapen the whole disciplinary process by using it to defend the league's image rather than the players. Second, that the contrast in suspension severity makes it just as palatable to a player to crosscheck a guy in the face as it is to make a rude gesture or say something off-color. Third, that the only consistency in NHL discipline has been that they're far more concerned with damage to their reputation than damage to players on the ice.

    Wow, that was way more succinct than the actual blog. I'm going to add that to the blog now in a retcon revision that smacks of cheatery.

  13. Don't worry, your retcon isn't as bad as Spider-Man selling his marriage to the devil to get his secret identity back.

  14. Wow. I like this article a lot more with the revisions. A lot more.

    That said, I've never seen cheatery of such gobsmacking immensitude.

  15. I was actually enjoying the debate until One More Day got brought up.

    My take is that the "obscene gesture" should have gotten one game. It sends a message, but makes it clear that that behavior is not nearly as dangerous as a headshot or a bad boarding.

    The two games for Hjalmarsson seemed a bit light. I agree that it should probably have been three.

    The biggest issue here is the lack of consistency, as has been stated.

    Well, that and Spider-Man being written by Quesada.

  16. I apologize profusely for bringing up One More Day. Clearly, such an abomination should be ignored rather than exploited for cheap humor. I shall never mention it again, unless it is for expensive humor.

  17. All is forgiven. Feel free to use Liefeld as a source of cheap humor, though.

  18. And now Doan gets 3 days for one of those blindside hits to the head that everyone is talking about.

    Could this be a precedent, or will future rulings be just as arbitrary as past rulings have been?

  19. Honestly, it's just nice to see a suspension that is based on the actions and not the results. There was no injury on the play and it still got a suspension. It could be seen as a piece of message sending; honestly, I think they got this one right.

  20. Actually, I think it was a dead-on call. I just hope that this becomes a standard and not an anomaly.


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