Point/Counterpoint: NHL discipline

Brendan Shanahan

Image courtesy Puck Daddy

Welcome to the newest edition of “Point/Counterpoint,” where a pair of Flyers Faithful scribes present both sides of one particular issue with their own unique view and flair. This week, Kim Q and Marcello De Feo square off on the topic of NHL discipline.

Point
By Kim Q

When Colin Campbell finally stepped down as the NHL’s principal disciplinarian, many NHL fans were relieved and felt that the promise of a better system would improve the sport they love.

Under Colin Campbell, supplementary discipline, at times, seemed to lack objectivity, not to mention the huge conflict of interest since his son plays in the league. When Brendan Shanahan assumed the vacated position, change was promised, harsher discipline was promised and at first, his videotaped explanations felt sincere, well-thought out and fair. Now, the videotapes seem contrived, the discipline is as inconsistent as ever and there have there’s been no measureable improvement in deterring players from illegal or dangerous hits.

No offense to Brendan Shanahan, but it’s time for change.

It would be easy to suggest that we can remove the instigator rule and return to letting the players police themselves, however it is the most unlikely scenario in the bunch. It’s hard to say how the game would be affected by erasing the instigator penalty and we need to realize that any change to rules will affect the game for years to come. The game itself is different now than it was then and returning the discipline and consequence back to the hands of the players would undoubtedly affect the game as it is today, possibly in a negative way.

The NHL could adopt a zero tolerance policy, which would certainly send a message no matter what the offence or who the player is. I just don’t think a zero tolerance policy is in the best interest of the game or the fans.

By far, the biggest criticism of the current discipline system is inconsistency. The video explanation of the suspensions seems to give the impression that there’s some sort of criteria for evaluating each hit, which I absolutely appreciate, however there is no rhyme or reason to the discipline handed out for each unique incident. What tends to get lost in the discussion is how ineffective the system is at dissuading players to commit the actions that might land them a suspension. There were 32 suspensions in the 2010-11 regular season and 35 suspensions in the 2011-12 regular season.  I think it’s safe to say supplementary discipline, as is, is not serving as a deterrent to illegal hits.

The good thing here is that a few minor changes could effectively send a message to the players, while making the whole system more fair and less subjective. Here is where the changes need to be made:

  1. There needs to be a clear and well defined list of offenses for which a player can be suspended. Players need to know clearly what they will be held accountable for. Notice that I said, “will be” not can be or may be, but will be. I don’t think gestures or spoken words should be suspension-worthy. If players want to say inappropriate things, let them put their money where their mouth is. This will most likely require the maximum $ fine to increase.
  2. There shouldn’t be one “face” of discipline; rather it should be discipline by committee and a committee that includes representation of all parties involved: the league, the officials and the players.
  3. Stop suspensions based on injury v no injury. This sends the message that the offense in question is only bad if there is an injury. We all know and unfortunately have been witness to almost identical hits that have very different results. The same hit on 2 different players will have 2 different results and just because a player wasn’t injured in one instance, doesn’t mean the hit was less illegal.
  4. Same thing with intent to injure. Mind-reading isn’t the best way to go about making decisions. If a hit is illegal and you do it anyway, there is intent to injure. Why else would you his someone in a dangerous way or while they are in a vulnerable position. I feel like I should address “no excuses” here too.  You don’t crosscheck someone up high or elbow someone because you are “protecting yourself”. That’s a lame excuse and shouldn’t ever be used to sway supplemental discipline decision making.
  5. There should be a set amount of games suspended per offense. I don’t care if the scale increases per offense (1st offense of any kind = 2 games, 2nd offense for that player = 5 games)or if certain offenses carry different suspension lengths (1st boarding offense = 3 games, 1st charging offense = 2 games), but there needs to be some method to the madness.  Fortunately, Shanahan’s video explanations have highlighted how inconsistent the punishments are. For example, Rene Bourque, then a first time offender, earned 2-game suspension for an illegal check from behind on Brent Seabrook that resulted in no injury, however was penalized during the game in which it occurred. Conversely, Milan Lucic, a repeat offender, earned just a 1 game suspension for a similar check from behind on Zac Rinaldo that did not result in injury just a day before Bourque’s offense.
  6. Stop waiting for players to enter the “Matt Cooke/Raffi Torres” territory. If there’s a consistent history, get these guys out of games and suspend them for the remainder of the season. Things should not get to a point where players are being carted off on stretchers and offenders are earning 20-25 game suspensions. If a 5 game suspension doesn’t send a message, I’d say 3 strikes and you are out for the remainder of the season. There should be very little tolerance for guys that are chronic repeat offenders.
  7. No special treatment for superstars. I don’t care if you play 2 minutes or 30 minutes a game.

In conclusion, the current system needs to change and a few tweaks could make it very effective in lieu of a complete overhaul. More clearly defined suspensions that are identified with certain consequences may dissuade players from illegal hits. There should be clear consequences defined for the players. No mercy for repeat offenders and no special treatment for superstars. The discipline should be by a committee that includes representation from the league, officials and players. One thing is certain is that It’s obvious that players do not fear consequences of these hits under the current system.

Counterpoint
By Marcello D

Despite being drafted as a highly-touted first round steal in 2006, Claude Giroux did not become a NHL regular until the second half of the 2009 season and did not emerge into a world-class talent until last season.

During the period prior to establishing himself as a NHLer, fans grew impatient with the right-handed forward. Some questioned why he was still in the AHL. Some suggested he should be traded for someone who could contribute immediately. A few even went so far as to state that he was a bust and that the Flyers could get a back of pucks for him.

This scenario is not uncommon in the sports world — especially in Philadelphia, where fans expect nothing but optimum performance from day one.

These things happens. Some players are judged and casted off too quickly while others are beloved forever for one or two minor but memorable accomplishments.

The Wayne Gretzkys (137 points as a rookie) and Sidney Crosbys (102 points as a rookie) of the world who can contribute at a high level from day one are generational talents. They are few and far between.

But what does this have to do with Brendan Shanahan and his role as the NHL’s head disciplinarian?

The principals are still the same: People require time to grow into their role and that means making mistakes along the way. Whether the person in question is a hockey player, a CEO of a business, a low-level employee, or someone in the NHL’s front office, he/she should not be expected to get everything right on the first day or even in the first year.

We as the audience, co-workers, or bystanders, need to be patient and look for the positive signs during that initial stages of growth that indicate whether a person will excel in that particular position.

During his first year as the league’s discipline czar, Shanahan made many moves that revolutionized the position of head disciplinarian — many of which have been stated above by Kim Q — and made the process completely transparent.

The downside of such transparency is that it opens Shanahan open up to more criticism each time a mistake is made, and he has made his share of mistakes along the way.

At the same time, Shanahan has also shown his potential, ingenuity, and intelligence. He has tremendous upside and it can be argued that he has had a greater positive impact during his first year as head disciplinarian than any of his other predecessors in recent history.

Now it is our turn to be patient, let Shanahan learn from his mistakes, and fully grow into his position through the upcoming seasons.