Friday, December 13, 2013

Fixing the NHL's Discipline Problems

The recent game between the Bruins and the Penguins highlights the shortcomings of the NHL's discipline system. It's hard to say how effective it has been since it was instituted after Matt Cooke ended Marc Savard's career. I honestly don't watch enough games to keep track of things, but, there doesn't seem to be many fewer hits to the head than there were before the system was established. Or even if the incidents have decreased, that decrease might be entirely from Matt Cooke no longer routinely hitting people in the head. Which I guess is something. But there is still a lot of dangerous plays happening and there is way too much confusion and ambiguity around how to punish these plays. Luckily, a bookish intellectual living in Somerville is here to save the NHL. Here's how I would fix the NHL's Discipline problem.

Systematize the Suspension System: Right now, a player gets suspended for as long as Brendan Shannahan says he gets suspended. Whether it's fair or not to criticize Shannahan's judgment—wait, no, it is. Far too often, Shannahan makes his decision based on story lines and public relations. If it looks really bad, you get a long suspension. If it doesn't look too bad, no matter how dangerous the play was, you might not get a suspension. And if you're a star player in the playoffs like Shea Weber you might not get suspended at all. (Just a fine.) This is not just a problem with Shannahan, but a problem with human judgment. There will always be an element of judgment in anything like this, but the more we can minimize it, the fairer and more effective the discipline system will be. How would the system work? The NHL would establish classes of dangerous plays. For example, a flow-of-play, on-the-puck dangerous play might be a Class C infraction, like if, in going for a legal hit, a player's arms, elbows, or shoulder, unintentionally made significant contact with an opponent's head, would carry a 2-game suspension for the first offense, and then additional games for each additional offense after that. These classes can make distinctions between (and should certainly include) plays involving sticks, fists, shoulders, and elbows, as well as plays targeting the upper or lower body. (Lower body stuff in particular is being neglected I think, especially given how many fights start with one player taking a shot at an opponent's knees.) This system doesn't have to be massively complex, just give enough structure that it is not always the responsibility of a human judge to assess the discipline.

Render the Fact of Injury Irrelevant: For the most part, a player can engage in a wildly dangerous play and get away without punishment if the opponent is not injured. I think we all know that if Marchand had gone off on the stretcher we would all be talking about Neal's knee to the head as one of the dirtiest plays of the last few years. If the play is dangerous, it's dangerous and that's it, and that fact needs to be formalized in order for discipline to be a meaningful deterrent to dangerous plays. Does this mean someone could end up with a 10-game suspension for a play in which his opponent was totally unhurt? Yes. But the goal of the discipline system is not to punish injurious plays but to prevent dangerous plays. That said, I would be totally cool with formalizing some kind of “severity” extra consideration. For example, if the league wants to add a greater penalty to a play because they believe it was an unusually severe example of the dangerous play, I think it would be fair to include the fact of injury as evidence in their case for the extra punishment, but not as proof for the extra punishment.

Formalize the Benefit of the Doubt: What was the difference between Orpik's unpenalized hit and Seidenberg's penalized hit? The benefit of the doubt. Essentially, the referees gave Orpik the benefit of the doubt; that he'd committed to the hit before the strange puck bounce off the boards put Erikson in a dangerous position and his target was Erikson's chest, even though there was substantial contact with the head. They assumed he was making a good hockey play, and the responsibility for the injury Erikson suffered, rested in the nature of hockey and an unlucky bounce. Seidenberg was not given the benefit of the doubt on his check. The result is that no one is really sure what constitutes an illegal hit to the head, which means that, if you've got a chance to really deck a guy, it might still be worth the risk. One way or the other, the league needs to formalize the benefit of the doubt and write into the rules something like, “If the referee is unsure whether an illegal hit to the head occurred he should assess the penalty.” Or not assess the penalty. The important thing is that everyone knows that if the play is borderline, as most plays are, it will be called the same way in every game and every situation.

Reform the Instigator Penalty: (Yeah, I've harped about this before, but it's relevant.) I don't know if fighting deters dangerous plays. I don't think anyone knows for sure one way or the other. But enough people, with all different relationships with the game, believe the idea that it is going to stick around for the foreseeable future. However, the structure of the instigator penalty compromises whatever ability fighting may have as a deterrent. A player who decides to engage in a dangerous play, knows that there is an extra deterrent against coming after him. However, I don't think we should get rid of the instigator role entirely. Too many fights are started after perfectly legal hits. Here's how I'd change things. After a fight, if the referees believed there was an instigator to that fight, they would formally label that player an “instigator.” After the game, the league would review run of play preceding the fight. If they believe there were no dangerous plays, the “instigator” is suspended for one game (and an additional game for each additional time he is an “instigator”). If they find a dangerous play, that player is not assessed the suspension. If the dangerous play they do find, fits one of the classes of suspension, that player is suspended under those rules. In this way, players are punished, both for unnecessary fights and for dangerous plays. (Sidenote: I don't entirely understand why a society perfectly cool with MMA and boxing has a problem with institutionalized fighting in hockey. That's not an endorsement of fighting in hockey. I honestly don't really know how I feel about it, but it does strike me as a tad incongruous.)

There is a chance that hockey (and football) is coming to a crisis point. The players are now moving so fast and are now so big and strong that plays that were safe for decades are now dangerous. To put this another way, our skulls haven't gotten any thicker even as the rest of our bodies have gotten bigger and stronger. Which, of course, brings about some of the most difficult questions around the nature of sport. How much risk is justified for our entertainment? What do we do about youth sports where, by definition, the kids playing are not responsible for their own well-being? When do the dangers of sport overtake the joys and whose joys have precedence? I honestly, hope we don't end up needing to ask these questions, but unless the discipline system is fixed, we will.

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