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March 11, 2008
Suspensions like Snowflakes
TFP's Greg Wyshynski speaks with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly about the future of suspensions, from "mandatory minimums" to how the NHLPA influences the current justice system.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- In an early February game in Montreal, Alex Kovalev danced through the middle of the New York Rangers' zone, carrying into the slot. He was bumped off the puck by Ryan Hollweg, who chased it to the corner boards with the Montreal forward in pursuit.

Hollweg won the race, and cleared the puck up ice. Kovalev, for reasons only known to him, decided to level him with a blatant, disgustingly vicious right elbow to the face long after the puck was history.

Later in the same period, Hollweg — no saint, let it be known — watched Sergei Kostitsyn go to the boards and play the puck in the Rangers' zone with his back turned to the ice.

Again, after the puck had been played, Hollweg used both of his arms and drove Kostitsyn's neck and head into the glass. The Hab crumbled to the ice; Hollweg's smug self-awareness of his vigilante justice was on full display as he slowly skated about a foot away and waited for retribution from whatever Montreal player would attempt to enact it.

Hollweg earned a boarding penalty and a game misconduct. And then... nothing.

No additional discipline from the NHL for either incident. Despite the fact that the announcers calling the game — on NBC, no less — labeled them as obviously actionable for League discipline czar Colin Campbell.

 

Perhaps it should be no surprise that a corporate entity like the NHL is so results oriented, but here it is:

There were no substantial injuries as a result of either play.

Even though the intent to injure was more clearly defined in both cases than it was, say, Randy Jones's hit on Patrice Bergeron, which ended the burgeoning Bruins star's season and potentially altered the course of his career. Jones received two games; the Flyers argued that the injury was the only reason for the suspension.

Calling the justice system in the NHL unfair and broken is nothing revolutionary. What's troubling, however, is how handcuffed that system appears when it comes to three standards — prior incidents from a player's past, injuries resulting from the infraction, and prevention of future acts — rather than a simple, one might say criminal, standard of intent.

Campbell was asked about the "balancing act" between intent and results in a conference call following the Jesse Boulerice cross-check to the face of Ryan Kesler: An intentional maiming that cost him 25 games. Campbell said:

"I don't know if there's any balancing here. I think we look at what happened. And we've got a lot of good people to work with me that have been around this game a long time. And we look at all the factors surrounding each and every play. And we try to determine what’s right and what’s wrong and how wrong did it go.

And in this play, we've always said before—and it's no different out on the street and any other action that we all are involved in—we've got to be accountable for the actions we take. And if bad things happen, that's your risk. And in this case he decided to do something that resulted in a bad action but not a terribly bad result. And he was lucky."

Campbell claimed at the time that Boulerice's previous history of violence in the minor leagues wasn't factored into his decision. And that's because it couldn't be, in accordance with the League's agreement with the NHLPA on the matter.

The Players Association has its share of responsibility in this warped justice, according to Bill Daly, the League's deputy commissioner. At a recent game in Washington, Daly told me that a "mandatory minimum:" system — one that would, in theory, automatically suspend a player like Kovalev or Hollweg for their blatant disregard for their peers — is opposed by the NHLPA.

"It's certainly an idea that's been floated. It's certainly not something our Players Association is in favor of, at all," he said.

Then again, it's not something the NHL is exactly enthusiastic about, either.

"From time to time, fans will see one incident and how it's treated and compare it another and say, 'Why were they treated differently?' " Daly said. "It's not a black and white science. There's a lot of grey in there. Even if you establish minimum thresholds, applying the incident to those standards [is difficult]."

In fact, Daly compared violent incidents that would appear to carry a suspension to, of all things, snowflakes: Each one is unique.

So what if a snowflake like Sidney Crosby snaps, and intentionally Boulerices some guy in the face?

Will the NHL weigh his previous clean record, and the medical charts of his victim, more than the malicious premeditation of his actions? Because many fans believe a superstar will get kid gloves compared to someone like Steve Downie.

"I've heard that to, but I can tell you that having worked with Colin for nine years, the identity of the perpetrator really doesn't come into it at all," said Daly.

Finally, some good news for Chris Simon.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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