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Meet the Sheriff: A Q&A with NHL Department of Player Safety's George Parros

The head of the NHL’s department of player safety has a no-win job – someone’s always going to be angry with his ruling – but he doesn’t care about making people happy, he just wants to keep his 800 ‘teammates’ safe.
NHL Images

NHL Images

The Hockey News: You’re a Princeton grad with an economics degree. How has that helped you in your job?

George Parros: Unless you’re going to be an economist, you’re not going to carry much of that with you. Going to a school like Princeton and having a demanding academic schedule, you’re taking away the bigger-picture items: time management, focus. You need a strong work ethic and, really, that’s what you’re getting prepped for in the real world.

THN: You’ve probably heard this before, as Chris Pronger did: you were an enforcer when you played, and naysayers ask, “If someone was a tough guy on the ice, how could he be an expert on player safety?”

PARROS: First of all, it’s important to have all sorts of viewpoints and histories and backgrounds within the department. It’s important we have a defenseman, a forward, a skill guy. I went out and hired Ray Whitney because I wanted a guy who was a very skilled player, had been around a long time, understood the game very well and sees the game in a different way than I might’ve. Certainly, his numbers will show you that.

But having the different viewpoints also includes guys that played the game over the edge, like Pronger. I think he broke every category the department owns as far as suspensions are concerned. For me, one of my selling points is I played the game as physical as anyone, but I was never fined or suspended. So you could argue I at least knew where the line was. I like to think of the fact that when I was playing, I was out there trying to make sure the 23 guys on my team were safe, and now I’ve got 800.

THN: For the uninitiated, can you explain the day-to-day operations of the DOPS?

PARROS: The department is 13 people. We have a group of game-watchers, or co-ordinators and managers, and every game is assigned to one of them. They’ve got the home and away feed. I’m mostly in the office during the day, sometimes both day and night. I’m travelling, too, so my schedule’s more hectic, but there’s always someone watching, and what we do is have these guys flag plays.

They say, “Here’s something of note,” and it can be any degree. A lot of times penalties aren’t even called, but it doesn’t matter if a penalty is called or not. “Here’s a play that is interesting to us for whatever reason,” whether it’s an illegal play, something that we’ve directed to start looking for, like, “We’ve noticed this lately. Let’s start paying attention to see if there are more of them that we’re not catching.”

They’ll show the senior director Patrick Burke or group VP Damian Echevarrieta in the room and say, “Hey, is this something we should clip and send out to the whole group, including the people that aren’t in the room that night?” Then Damian or Patrick will be the first line of defense and say, “That’s nothing,” or “I want everyone to see that, it might be something.”

I’m up until the last minute of the last game, and I’m evaluating these clips as they come in, and I’m making my decision on if I need to dig deeper on a clip or incident. Then I’ll act appropriately. I’ll ask the players or the people in my department for their opinions, and they’ll reply independently, and I’ll come up with a decision to have a hearing or not or decide what the proper course of action should be. Sometimes I need to sit on it overnight and think about it more. You want to make sure you don’t rush the judgement.

THN: You’re more of a hands-on leader than your predecessors. What are your most important goals?

PARROS: When I took over, I said that things are pretty good in general when you look back from where the league has come. The game is being played to a safer degree. There aren’t many outlandish incidents or headhunting or things like that. There’s always going to be stuff for us to deal with, but I don’t think the machine is broken.

Things that stood out to me were things our new players can control and can be cleaned up more, and those are non-hockey plays. If you’re talking about trying to tweak things or change culture, you have to educate the players and make sure they know what things you’re looking at and make sure you’re not striking too hard out of the gates.

When I was on the players’ tour this year, I was mostly there to answer questions from the players and make sure that I was held accountable. Every player had the opportunity to ask questions for our department and let me know if there is something they’re confused about. It also gave me the opportunity to say, “Here are some of the things we look for, and here’s the way we look at them, so they’re on your radar now. If you’re going to do something, expect to hear from me if you’re crossing that line.”

THN: When a play warrants supplemental discipline, there seems to be a dilemma in that the perpetrator and the victim are both part of the NHL Players’ Association. For instance, you have one side that wants to fight for the right of the person who received the head shot and might want every suspension to be longer. Yet the same group wants to fight for the person who’s being suspended. How do you appease both sides?

PARROS: When we’re having a hearing, it’s just the player, the aggressor in the situation, and there’s no representative for the victim, and the players’ union is there to make sure the hearing goes according to plan. The players know that. They know there’s (the victim) on the other side of this. Sometimes the fan doesn’t realize that or pay attention to that. Our main goal is to try and be as consistent as we can, be predictable and make sure players know that, when they do something to a certain degree, there is going to be a consistent level of enforcement.

But that consistency starts to fade the more often you come in front of us. We’re actually specifically instructed by the CBA to deal with repeat offenders more harshly depending on the circumstances and situation. So, to your question of why suspensions aren’t longer, you have a parameter or baseline for a certain type of suspension, and you want to remain consistent with that. But if it becomes an issue the general managers strongly feel they want to attack harder, they’ll let us know. Or we’ll figure that out and bring it to them, and we’ll refocus on that particular play, and we can start to go harder. But you don’t want to do it right off the bat with no reason in the middle of the season.

THN: For Tom Wilson’s recent suspension, you make a 20-game ruling, then it gets decreased to 14 by neutral arbitrator Shyam Das. Was that frustrating? What did you learn from it?

PARROS: I’m not mad at the process. Whether it needs to be tweaked is not up to me. I feel like our department handled the situation in an appropriate manner. We made our best decision, just like any decision we make. We’ll stand by it, and if it gets bumped down, then so be it. That’s part of the process. So there’s no ill will.

There’s probably some argument to be made that someone who doesn’t live this existence or doesn’t understand where we’ve come from or what we’re trying to do, it’s a lot harder for them to come in and come to a decision. I guess it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t come to the same conclusion. They’re not involved in our day-to-day. They don’t see everything we see. They’re not basing their decisions on where the department has been and where it needs to be.

THN: What’s the No. 1 misconception when people try to understand what the DOPS does?

PARROS: The most frustrating thing might be the idea there is different treatment toward some players than others. I can give you an example 10 times over of a star player that has or has not been suspended, a player with a certain history that has or has not been suspended, whether there’s an injury on the play or not, whether there’s a major penalty on the play or no penalty at all. There’s no special treatment for any player, every player gets the same treatment, and they’re all protected equally.

We do put out messaging, and try and do as much education as we can, but when it’s your team, as a player or fan or media, it can all go out the window. We’ve explained our standards before, but when a controversial decision is being made, people will react in the way you’d expect them to.


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