Perhaps nothing is more controversial in the modern NHL than the League's policy concerning suspensions.
The Wheel of Justice, referring to Colin Campbell's decisions on assessing supplementary discipline for actions frowned upon by the League, has become a sort of comedic riot for hockey fans in North America. It has become increasingly difficult to figure out what constitutes a play being deemed worthy of suspension, from head shots to lewd gestures to blindside hits to off-ice comments. The discrepancy amongst the punishment assessed for infractions runs the gamut from too lax to overprotective, slightly confusing to absurd.
This isn't to say the League doesn't get suspensions right some of the time-- they most definitely do. As is the case with nearly everything in contemporary society, mistakes get magnified and correct behavior tends to be overlooked. Human beings as a whole love to nitpick and second guess. It is empowering to know that those in power can make mistakes like the common man. They are human beings after all, and that fact is one which will never go unnoticed.
However, the NHL's disciplinary policy is one that has received it's fair share of criticism over the years, and rightly so. The list of complaints over suspendable offenses has now become too large to ignore-- from blogs to mainstream outlets, players to fanbases, it seems as if everyone has felt the NHL has gotten something wrong that pertains to the sport or organization they follow and cover.
The biggest complaint? A lack of consistency, and a lack of communication from the League to their customers.
Although the publication of this piece coincides with the two game suspension of Sharks Captain mentioned earlier today, the evidence of this has been mounting for some time now:(which definitely played a large role in the decision to run this), there needs to be some clarity-- it is quite clear that the NHL has taken hits to the head extremely seriously this season. As Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy
It's the same thing they did with of the , the other high-profile captain suspended under the head-shot rule. As we said at the time of his 3-game ban:
"This is a statement to the players, as loud as any the League has made this season: Even the seemingly benign blindside hits are on the radar. The game has changed."
And so it has. So Thornton's agent will consider an appeal (via Dreger) and the Sharks and their fans will get all sorts of pissed off that this was a suspension rather than a fine, like the one received for basically doing the same thing Thornton did.
The majority of blogs and pundits across the country agree that this hit did not deserve a suspension. This much is clear.
But what is clearer is the fact that the NHL disagrees. The League has decided to make a huge stand on hits to the head, first with Doan and now with Thornton. No player is exempt from the rule, and no contact, from a graze to a full on target, will be overlooked. Concussions in the sport have already become a huge story in the last year, and the NHL has taken them very seriously.
Has it compromised the integrity of hitting in the sport? Possibly. Has it turned the NHL into a no-contact League where players are coddled for skating with their heads down? Not yet. Has it attempted to address the concussion issues that were prevalent throughout the sport, the issues that had the majority of individuals clamoring for a rule change six months ago?
Yes. And for better or worse, this is the way it is going to be from here on out. Thornton's suspension leaves no gray area in that regard.
However, as the aforementioned Wyshynski mentioned above, Nick Foligno's hit on Pat Dwyer shares many similarities with Thornton's hit on. The pass comes from a defenseman up the center of the ice, the offended player has his head down, and contact with the head was made. So why did Foligno go unpenalized during the game, was not suspended afterwards, and only assessed a fine? And why was Thornton was ejected from the game, missing thirty five minutes of action, and consequently suspended for a deuce?
Here is the NHL's press release concerning Thornton:
forward Joe Thornton has been suspended for two games and will forfeit $77,419.36 in salary as a result of delivering an illegal check to the head of forward David Perron in NHL game #176, last night, the National Hockey League announced today.
The incident occurred at 5:26 of the second period and Thornton was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct under Rule 48 for Illegal Check to the Head. Thornton will miss games against Tampa Bay (Nov. 6) and Anaheim (Nov. 9). He is eligible to return Nov. 11 against the.
Clarity. This release does does not have it.
It is akin to reading a boxscore after the game, a nuts and bolts explanation of a play that has numerous other factors involved. It offers nothing except information that even the most casual observers can figure out on their own.
Satisfying customers is ultimately the NHL's biggest priority. Without revenue the League doesn't flourish, and without fans, that revenue stream dries up. Fans are the most important thing to every single NHL organization-- they allow management to spend vast amounts of money on players, hold promotions to increase cash flow, and draw in media outlets to cover the sport and increase exposure. Everything is interdependent here, but without fans, the whole system collapses. No fans means no interest. No interest means no exposure. No exposure means no growth. Simple.
This isn't to say that the NHL has turned a blind eye towards fans-- far from it. The League is consistently at the forefront of the social media revolution in the sporting world, by far the most privy to these things than every other sport league in the United States of America. They do an excellent job of disseminating information to their customers over the internet, a direct line straight into the vein of fanbases everywhere.
Which makes this proposal a fairly easy one to implement. The infrastructure is already there, the track already laid. All it takes is a conductor to get the train moving out of the station.
The idea is simple-- a video of suspensions, complete with audio commentary throughout, explaining why each incident was suspendable according to the current NHL Rulebook.
With all of the confusion surrounding the Wheel of Justice over the years, this would be a great way for the NHL to directly explain to their consumer, as well as the organizations effected by supplementary discipline, why a certain ruling was given out. Clarity breeds understanding, and understanding for the players and fans can never be considered a detriment to the game. A minute long video breaking down the play, from the rules to the methods involved that warranted discipline, can only be a good thing for the League.
We're going to assume here thatand Colin Campbell went over the tape for (at the very least) fifteen minutes before reaching their ruling-- it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. In that time frame they looked at every angle available to them, took into account the game situation, analyzed body positioning, scrutinized the rulebook, and went over the offending player's disciplinary history. Condensing the notes and analysis from those meetings into a minute long video released to the players and press would be a quick process to undergo. It explains what they saw, how they came to their conclusion, and why they chose to implement (or not implement) punishment in the way that they did.
An argument against this proposal is that the NHL would be in a position where they could be forced to admit a referee's mistake on the ice. It's a worthwhile point to raise, and one that could block this from being implemented.
However, suspensions are rulings that come after the game has been completed. In other words, discipline is being handled after the game with a focus on the infraction that was committed, not whether or not the player was penalized on the play. It's removed from the referees decision during the game, as it has been in the past when players have been suspended for a hit that resulted in a non-call from the officials.
The point is that there is self imposed protocol for being consistent with rulings. That’s the most important thing— getting these decisions correct, even if they weren't penalized before, and explaining to players and fans why discipline was handed out in the way it was. It sets the standard going forward.
The 2010-2011 new rules video released by the League at the beginning of the season was a good step for the NHL, and allowed them to attempt to define what a head shot is and isn't. However, hockey is an extremely fluid sport-- players come in at varying angles, contact is made at different points of the body, and the play progresses at different speeds. Each situation is different, and needs to be explained as such. The more the League is able to communicate that to their players by providing an increasingly larger body of work that coaches and players have to work with in regard to these rules, the better understanding all involved can have of what constitutes a suspendable offense and what does not.
Transparency and clarity. This can only be a good thing for the NHL. And on Tuesday at the GM meetings, where policies and rule implementations are discussed, we hope they consider this addition.
It may not change how suspensions are handled. It may not change interepretation of the rulebook. This is completely fine.
But it would make these decisions much clearer to those who struggle with figuring out why a certain play went unpunished while another one did. And while the Wheel of Justice may continue to spin to a tune no one can quite figure out, we would all have a much better idea of where the wheel will eventually land.
It makes players more accountable for their actions. It makes players more accountable to their coaches. It provides a constant explanation of what is right and wrong, a fluid dialogue between the League and those playing the game-- a dialogue that would make it clear this is what they expect and why they expect it.
In theory, it's a one minute of video explaining each suspension. In practice, it's a way to make the game safer and more enjoyable for all.