Penalties, Suspensions, Inconsistency, Oh My!


This article was originally published on May 11, 2012 on the former

If you’re a hockey fan, then you’re already sick of hearing about how inconsistent the officiating is from game to game, even from shift to shift. Fans of every team complain about it, and rightfully so. Incidents that look, smell, and sound like penalties are often turned a blind-eye on, only to have the same incident be called a penalty shifts later. Some hits to the head are reviewed by the league. In some instances, the offending player is suspended. Other times, what looks like exactly like the type of “headshot” the NHL claims its trying to eliminate is not even reviewed by the league. Who decides which hits get reviewed and are potentially suspendable and which aren’t? And who is really to blame? A select group of incompetent referees? Brendan Shanahan? Commissioner Gary Bettman?

In some ways, they’ve all earned their share of the blame. But after stepping back and taking a deeper look at the heart of the issue, it’s hard not to put the bulk of the blame on the commissioner, who seems more than satisfied with the state of affairs regarding the half-hearted “hearings” and laughable $2,500 maximum fines to players who make millions of dollars each year.

Let’s look at two of the core issues here:

1. Basing Suspensions on Injury

First of all, players are very often injured as the result of clean hits. So how can whether or not a player suffered an apparent injury be a factor (and seemingly a quite integral one) in deciding how a player should be punished for an illegal hit to the head? It simply doesn’t make sense. But hey, the NHL seems fine with basing punishment on arbitrary details. The best example is the double minor for high sticking. Is this a first blood match in the WWF? Nope, it’s a hockey game. But if you high stick an opposing player and he bleeds even one drop of blood, it’s automatically a four minute penalty instead of two. The fact that the mouth area bleeds rather easily is not taken into consideration. The fact that more egregious high sticking penalties may not result in blood being drawn while an accidental graze to the lip likely will plays absolutely no part in the ruling. Never mind that some players bleed easier than others. This is the NHL, where common sense takes a backseat to outdated, poorly written rules.

2. No Transparency

If the suits behind the scenes (Bettman and company) decide that they don’t want to review a dirty hit, they can do so without having to explain their reasoning to anyone. Alex Ovechkin is a repeat offender, who was suspended for three games earlier this season for leaving his feet and hitting the head of Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek. During Brendan Shanahan’s “explanatory” video, the VP of player safety stated, “once Ovechkin leaves his feet, he is responsible for any contact with the head.” However, after Ovechkin left his feet and made contact with Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi’s head during game 4 of the Caps-Rangers second round series (a play that he was given a two minute penalty for during the game), there was no suspension. There wasn’t even a review/hearing. What could possibly be the reason for such wild inconsistency? Would there have been a hearing if Girardi was hurt? Perhaps more players will start staying down after being hit and exaggerating injury like Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is a very unfortunate side-effect of the league’s refusal to show transparency like the NFL admirably does. Is this the path the league wants to go down? Players and teams faking or exaggerating the extent of injuries in attempts to get an opposing player suspended for a game or two. One game is a huge deal in the playoffs, especially if it’s your star player who’s sitting out.

Furthermore, Brendan “Shanaban’s” video explanations belong on Saturday Night Live. The future hall of famer will talk for three minutes about the hit in question. He’ll then go over whether or not the head was the principle point of contact, whether or not the player could’ve avoided making the hit that way, whether or not the offending player has been suspended or fined for an illegal hit before, whether or not a penalty was called on the play, and whether or not an apparent injury occurred. But it’s not until the very end of the video that he actually tells the viewer if the player in question is being suspended, and for even the most experienced hockey fans and analysts, until that point it’s anyone’s guess. Hit “A” may have all the same criteria as hit “B,” yet only one of the hits will result in a suspension. If the NHL want to be taken seriously, they need to actually explain which criteria hold the most water in making a decision on supplemental discipline, and explain why seemingly identical hits are so often treated so differently by the league’s “department of player safety.”

The Bottom Line:

If the league really wanted to eliminate these dangerous hits to the head, they would suspend players who make these reckless hits, regardless of whether or not the victimized player suffers an injury. How does it deter Alex Ovechkin, notorious for leaving his feet to make big hits if he’s only slapped on the wrist during the regular season and then completely ignored in the playoffs as long as the player isn’t injured on the play? The NHL needs to stick to their guns or drop the whole “headshot” agenda. The league was in better hands without the instigator rule because it allowed players to police themselves. If you threw a dirty hit, you had to answer with your fists, rather than a $2,500 fine. For a player like Ovechkin, who makes almost ten million dollars each year, a $2,500 fine is the equivalent of fining normal people like you and me about 15 dollars. Would a 15 dollar fine deter you from speeding?

Written By: Bretzky2012


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