Take a Stand: A call for much needed change at the NHL’s Department of Player Safety

 

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Picture From NHL.com

Bettman, we’ve got a problem.In its most recent disciplinary decision (or lack thereof), the NHL Department of Player Safety (DOPS) opted to subject Washington’s Tom Wilson to the maximum allowable fine under the CBA in the amount of $2,403.67 for his kneeing of Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary. He received no game suspension,and will suit up for Game 2 of the Penguins-Capitals second round series on Saturday night. Tom Wilson has a history of being a chippy, borderline dirty NHL player who I happen to strongly dislike as a Rangers fan. This conversation is bigger than my fandom though—it’s bigger than any one team. The contact in question occurred a full “two-Mississippi” count after Sheary dumps the puck into the Capitals zone upon gaining center-ice. Wilson takes a full, directed stride to his left in order to make certain connection with Sheary’s left knee. You can see Sheary actually attempting to evade Wilson at the last second. The video is truly cringe-worthy and the fact that Wilson did not even receive a phone call hearing, let alone an in-person meeting is unacceptable. If the league truly wanted to keep this intentional, unnecessary violence out of the game, a good place to start would be to make a priority out of setting a better precedent for offenders’ objectively blatant infractions.

A quick look back at two other questionable plays during the 2016 Playoffs really does beg the questions; just who is making these decisions, what objective guidelines are they attempting to use and when will logic/practical thinking factor in?

Again, all personal bias aside, Kris Letang’s tee-ball swing on Viktor Stalberg’s face in Game 3 of the Rangers-Penguins series seemed to be as obvious a transgression as could be—surely it was enough to warrant a call from the entity responsible for PLAYER SAFETY, right? Granted, there was no penalty called during the game, and unfortunately, I’ve come to expect poor refereeing in this day and age (an important discussion for another time). But surely the DOPS, with unlimited replay technology, camera angles and the critical capability to make decisions after fully digesting and dissecting these plays apart from in-game emotions, would at least give Kris Letang a call—right? After all, the slow-motion replay depicts Letang moving the puck up the boards, picking up his head, noticing Stalberg directly in front of him, and then proceeding to violently pick up momentum with his stick in order to swing it forward into Stalberg’s neck. Ultimately, Stalberg lost three teeth, Pens coach Mike Sullivan dubbed it a “hockey play” and Letang’s imaginary apology got lost on its way to Vik. If an NHL head coach now considers that a “hockey play,” then the game truly is going down a dark road. I get the instinct to protect your player, but come on Sully—regardless, the more worrisome point is that apparently, the DOPS agrees with him.

There was also a play during Game 3 of the Capitals-Flyers first round series in which the Flyers’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare sent Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov flying head first into the boards. Bellemare received a five minute major and a game misconduct for the check from behind, along with an impending review of the play from the DOPS. He ended up being suspended solely for the next game, despite the DOPS even noting themselves that “it is important to note that Bellemare is control of this play at all times.” The DOPS weighed the checking from behind against the fact that Orlov returned to the game uninjured and that the play was Bellemare’s first serious offense. However, this balancing approach is incredibly skewed. Firstly, the fact that in the NHL’s mind, there were two elements against discipline and only one for distorts the gravity of the actual play Bellemare made. He chased Orlov directly from behind without any attempt to slow down as he caught up to him by the boards, then launched him without regard for his wellbeing headfirst. Second, Orlov not getting seriously injured on the play shouldn’t make the infraction any less severe. Of course it should be given it’s due consideration, but the fact remains that the consequences could’ve come out a whole lot worse had his head made contact at a slightly different angle. The DOPS needs to seriously rethink how they’re doling out penalties in order to avoid retaliation and a message of lenient consequences for reckless “hockey plays.”

Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, one of the budding young superstars in the NHL and a second year defenseman, recently said “I feel like there should be stiffer punishments for guys that don’t respect other player’s health in the league. It’s a dangerous game and we all know that…[t]he other guys have to have more respect, and I think the league should obviously come down harder on repeat offenders and guys that don’t respect other players.” Ekblad’s honest take seems to echo the sentiment of fans around the league. Perhaps if other stars follow suit and the NHL offices have to constantly address player public concerns, they’ll realize that there’s a serious gap in enforcement to be filled.

The nearly universal test for liability throughout every area of the law boils down to an objective, reasonable person standard. Re-watch the videos of the three plays described above, and if you still think the DOPS got their disciplinary sanctions right, maybe I need to reassess my formulation of the test. Also, for what it’s worth, the Department of Player Safety repeatedly auto-corrected to “DOPES” throughout my writing of this article.

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