In all my time at The Hockey News, I’ve rarely met an NHLer who was more of a stand-up guy than Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. The first time I spoke with him – at the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago – I mentioned I wrote for THN and Keith immediately perked up in a show of respect for the publication. We’ve talked a few times since then and I always come away with a better appreciation of what a wholly decent guy he is.
But none of that matters when the discussion turns to the blatant, serious, suspension-worthy elbow Keith threw at Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin Wednesday night. As much as the NHL wants character traits to play a role in deciding supplemental discipline, you need only look at the way other professional sports leagues deal with serious transgressions to realize how utterly inadequate the NHL’s punishments normally are.
The National Football League provided another example in that regard the same day Keith took out Sedin with a lunging elbow. The NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, suspended New Orleans Saints management members harshly for the franchise’s grotesque bounty system that offered cash bonuses to its players if they were able to seriously injure members of the opposition. Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season; the team’s former defensive co-ordinator, Gregg Williams, was suspended indefinitely; GM Mickey Loomis received an eight-game ban; assistant coach Joe Vitt got six games; and the team itself was fined $500,000 and lost its second round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
Can you imagine any scenario under which NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan would ever drop a remotely similar punishment on a player or team? Players might get something along those lines if they banded together, purchased an NHL team and tried to move it to Hamilton, Ont., but otherwise, there is virtually no crime heinous enough to warrant that in hockey’s top league. That’s the problem.
Now, perhaps the NHL would react just as harshly if one of their team management members acted as the Saints coaches and managers did and besmirched the integrity of the sport. But even the on-field suspensions given to a repeat offender such as Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison – who got fined a whopping $120,000 in 2010 for several illegal hits – pale in comparison to the laughable $2,500 fines routinely handed out by the NHL (and, to be fair, stipulated in the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association).
And yes, I realize the league levied stern and lengthy punishments to Todd Bertuzzi (suspended for the entire 2004-05 lockout season after his assault of Steve Moore), Grant Fuhr (whose one-year suspension for drug use was later reduced to four months of the 1990-91 season) and Marty McSorley (who got what effectively was a 23-game suspension for swinging his stick into the head of Donald Brashear). But in all three cases, you could make the argument that none of the discipline ended up being sufficient.
Speaking of insufficient: in this, the first full season of Shanahan’s rule as the increasingly-ironically-titled director of player safety, the NHL has made the three-game suspension the equivalent of Oprah Winfrey’s famous car giveaway: everybody gets one. Whatever crime a player has committed – whether it’s Phoenix’s Shane Doan elbowing Dallas’ Jamie Benn in the melon, Boston’s Andrew Ference boarding the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh or Philly’s Zac Rinaldo charging Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson – they almost always somehow wind up with no more than a three-game sitdown.
A three-game suspension represents 3.66 percent of an NHLer’s regular season. It does not cause players to take a long, hard look at the choices they make on the ice. It is akin to embedding a thimble-sized speed bump in a high-traffic roadway to put the brakes on dangerous driving. I’d call it a wrist-slap, but even the wrist barely feels it.
Take a look at the list of NHL suspensions this season. The only players who received more than three games are repeat offenders such as Andy Sutton, Brad Marchand and Daniel Carcillo – and even then, only Sutton and James Wisniewski received the longest suspensions: eight games, or a shade less than 10 percent of their year (and more importantly, their salary). Everyone else almost always gets between one and three games. They don’t receive the hammer and have the fear of the hockey gods put into them. Instead, they receive a mini-vacation of sorts. That’s hardly the type of punishment that will effect the kind of culture change so desperately needed to curb the NHL’s concussion epidemic.
I won’t argue the NFL and all its players or fans are on the same page when it comes to that league’s much tougher approach to player/personnel discipline, nor that ramped-up punishments have made the game perfectly safe for all involved. That league has a continuing concussion issue (although I’d argue that’s because football features helmet-to-helmet contact on just about every play). And Harrison and other NFLers have accused their league’s brass of making the game softer.
But you know what? The NFL didn’t care about optics, or what some people believed. Goodell didn’t hide behind nebulous jargon like “the fabric” of the sport, the way some hockey people do when they don’t have any other rational explanation for hockey’s wayward traditions. They didn’t use the lack of punitive precedent as an excuse not to act. Rather, they moved swiftly and forcefully to underscore their expectations for a basic standard of conduct. And they did the same thing in 2010, when they redefined the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty mid-season in an attempt to cut down on their head injury problem.
At the time, Ray Anderson, the NFL’s chief disciplinarian, said he couldn’t and wouldn’t take an offending player’s character or intent into account when handing out increased punishments.
“When something happens, everybody says they didn’t mean to do it,” Anderson said. “But if someone runs a stop sign and collides with another car, their intent might not be to cause any damage. But they are still accountable.”
Unfortunately, in the NHL, players are not accountable. At least, not accountable enough. It’s not Shanahan’s fault, either. The owners who control most of the meaningful reins of power and give Shanahan direction are the ones who can clean things up and clean them up in a hurry.
That they continually choose not to, while other leagues demonstrate the effect an iron fist can have on setting meaningful standards, is another indictment of the NHL’s absentee parent approach to controlling employee behavior.
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