TORONTO – Colin Campbell figured he knew all about feedback and scrutiny until someone posted his email address on the Internet during last year’s playoffs.
“In about three hours, I had about 600 emails,” Campbell recalled Wednesday.
And not one of them was from someone who wanted to tell him how well he was doing his job. Campbell, the NHL’s disciplinarian, is one of the most second-guessed men in all of hockey.
Barely a week passes during the season without a hit or play that prompts not only an endless number of replays on television, but also the accompanying debate about whether it warrants a suspension – and how long that suspension should be.
The season is just two months old and Campbell has already suspended 15 players for a total of 32 games. While a couple of those were automatic bans after players took an instigator penalty late in a game, the majority of the rulings were solely at his discretion.
Many of them also became fodder for talk radio, newspaper columns and TV panellists – not to mention fans.
“There’s constant discussions about the game and what’s right and what’s wrong with it because there’s lots of talk shows and lots of reasons to talk about it,” said Campbell. “We don’t have a lot of trades these days so they talk about other things like that.”
The increase in media coverage and attention is one of the biggest changes he’s witnessed since becoming the NHL’s senior executive vice-president and director of hockey operations in 1998.
Time has helped him develop a thick skin, although Campbell is aware that many are critical of the league’s discipline policy because there isn’t a defined punishment for each offence. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to draft one.
“We try to be consistent,” said Campbell. “We get challenged for our consistency, but there’s so many different factors and criteria that are attached to a particular incident – with the player, with the team, with the game, with that player’s past, the player that he got involved with perhaps – there’s just so many criteria that are involved.
“You’re looking for some sort of consistency and pattern that will reflect the right sort of punishment.”
On Tuesday, Campbell suspended Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for two games after he was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Carolina’s Tim Gleason.
Ovechkin appeared to suffer an injury on the play – the Caps list him as a “day-to-day” – and might be missing games he would have sat out anyway. However, that was one criteria Campbell didn’t consider when making his ruling.
“That wasn’t a factor at all,” he said.
The league’s disciplinarian maintains that it’s not any tougher to ban one of the game’s top players than it is to suspend Montreal Canadiens tough guy Georges Laraque, something he did last week.
Campbell had already fined Ovechkin for a slew-footing incident earlier in the season and made it known to the Caps superstar that he had to tone it down a little. The suspension now makes Ovechkin a repeat offender, which means he’ll be subject to a higher fine if he’s disciplined again in the next 18 months – he’d pay slightly less than US$220,000 for a two-game suspension in that case, more than double the $98,844.16 he was docked this time around.
“I know (players) make a lot of money, but in my book, that’s a lot,” said Campbell.
Ovechkin clearly isn’t pleased with his suspension and has vowed not to change his game in any way. On Wednesday, he suggested to reporters in Washington that he might come back “more angry” – or more determined to play a physical game.
The league will certainly be watching.
Campbell is a former NHL player and coach, and the father of Florida Panthers forward Gregory Campbell. Essentially, he’s spent his life in hockey and cares deeply for the sport.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” said Campbell.
And during 11 years as the league’s disciplinarian, he thinks he’s seen a change for the better.
“When I first broke in doing this job, there was much meaner incidents going on with stick infractions and things like that where players were hurting other players in a more vicious way,” he said. “Our players have toned it down quite a bit. And now mostly we’re just talking about things like the knees or the hockey hits gone bad.
“Knock wood, we’re not talking about some of the vicious things with sticks, etc.”