COMMENTARY: Despite efforts over the last couple of years to help everyone better understand their process, procedures and rules, supplementary discipline in the National Hockey League is as big a joke as it ever was, and it will continue to be unless one key change is made.
LOS ANGELES — On April 24, Los Angeles Kings winger Dustin Brown was suspended two games, without pay, for elbowing Minnesota Wild forward Jason Pominville at 10:04 of the second period in a game at Minnesota on April 23, a 2-1 Wild victory.
No penalty was called on the play.
Brown will forfeit $34,324.32 in salary, with the money going to Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
Whether you agree with the decision by National Hockey League Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan or not, what is crystal-clear is that despite the league’s noble efforts over the past couple of years, supplementary discipline in the NHL is as much of a joke as it ever was.
Indeed, whether it’s due to inconsistency in rulings on similar incidents, or simple ignorance of the rules, fans, media and pundits alike still have virtually no clue about what is worthy of a fine or suspension and what isn’t, even though the league has done more to explain the rules and the disciplinary process in the past year or two than they ever have.
A big reason for what seems like greater confusion than ever before is the NHL’s success in the use of video, the World Wide Web, and social media. To be sure, fans and media alike can see live game action just about anywhere. They can discuss it with others, and get news almost immediately via social media, most notably, Twitter.
The easy, immediate access to communications that social media provides often gives us solid, accurate news and information, along with quality debate. But as much as social media can allow the spread of legitimate, accurate, reliable and worthwhile content in a viral explosion, it has as much potential to magnify the spread of rumors, phony information, and malicious attacks on individuals and groups.
The NHL’s efforts to get us all to understand what justifies supplementary discipline and what does not has benefitted from the league’s widespread use of the World Wide Web, video, and social media. But especially in terms of social media, so far, their efforts to educate fans, media and pundits alike appear to be failing miserably, some of which can be linked to the dark side of using social media, as mentioned earlier, and the reaction to Brown’s hit on Pominville provides ample evidence of that.
Many of the comments posted on the various social media outlets focused on Brown’s intent, with many, including some respected members of the media, calling it a “dirty” hit.
But in this reporter’s view, calling such a hit “dirty” means that there was malicious intent behind it. Given that Brown had never been fined or suspended by the league prior to this incident, not to mention that Shanahan did not find any cause to believe that such intent was involved, Brown’s hit does not fall under the “dirty” category.
Other intent-related comments said that Brown should not be suspended because there was no malicious intent involved.
In terms of intent being a factor in the decision made by Shanahan, malicious intent would be a factor, if there was any. As reported earlier, Shanahan made no such finding. But just because there was no malicious intent does not mean supplementary discipline is no longer applicable. That is not how the rules work, contrary to what is, evidently, popular belief.
So what it comes down to is if Brown was guilty of an elbow, and did Pominville put himself in a vulnerable position.
Video replay, especially the one Shanahan used to base his decision on, clearly shows that Brown got his elbow up, even though Pominville skated into him. As Shanahan noted, and what works against Brown, is that he knew Pominville was coming, and he was prepared to deliver a counter-hit, as Shanahan noted.
“Counter-hits occur often in hockey,” he said. “They are usually used by players to protect themselves from impending checks, or to gain a tactical advantage.”
The problem for Brown, even if you contend that he was trying to protect himself, is that no matter how you slice it, the evidence is clear regarding the elbow delivered to Pominville’s head. Even though Pominville’s knees were bent slightly, meaning that he was coming in lower than one would usually expect, he was not low enough to save Brown from supplementary discipline.
In fact, NHL Rule 45.1 does not specify anything about a player coming in low or not.
Rule 45 – Elbowing (45.1): Elbowing shall mean the use of an extended elbow in a manner that may or may not cause injury.
If Rule 48 – Illegal Check to the Head was applied in this case, Pominville’s body position might have been a factor.
Rule 48.1 A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
In other words, Pominville might have born a bit of responsibility for putting himself in a vulnerable position, but probably nowhere near enough for Brown to escape supplementary discipline. Again, the video evidence is clear. In any case, because Rule 48.1 was not applied in this case, Pominville’s positioning is irrelevant.
Change Needed In How Supplementary Discipline Is Determined
Even if you disagree with Shanahan’s ruling, indulge me for a bit and assume that supplementary discipline was justified. The question then becomes what is appropriate? A fine? A suspension, and if so, how many games?
Given that Brown had no previous history of fines or suspensions, Shanahan had to take that into consideration, yet he still suspended Brown for two games. That seems excessive for a player with no prior history, and on a hit in which there was no malicious intent (if there was, Shanahan would have noted that in his explanation, and the suspension would have been longer).
What it comes down to, and as we have seen time and time again in so many other supplementary discipline decisions, is the fact that the player who was hit suffered an injury. That fact, along with the extent and severity of the injury, played a very large role in the decision to suspend and in the length of the suspension.
This is where the NHL has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Indeed, if the NHL ever decides to really get serious about deterring bad hits and stick-related incidents, whether they are the result of malicious intent, or just recklessness, as in the case of Brown’s elbow on Pominville, they must stop making the result of such incidents a major factor in such decisions. Instead, the act itself should be the determining factor. After all, similar, if not almost identical incidents can cause different injuries, varying degrees of injury, or no injury at all.
The result of such incidents has absolutely no bearing on whether or not malicious intent was involved, if it was the result of recklessness, or the degree of recklessness.
One might argue that in criminal justice, the result is taken into account when punishment is handed down. However, we’re not talking about issues of law and order. We’re not talking about serious crimes. We are talking about plays that happen within the game, on the ice. Just like other professional sports, such incidents are judged by different standards and rules from what happens in the “real world.”
As such, there is a clear need to eliminate the use of the result to determine what the appropriate punishment is, not to mention the length of any suspension. Instead, such decisions should be based on the act itself. That would lead to everyone, especially the players, understanding what is allowed, and what isn’t. It would also make it clear what the consequences are for crossing the line, as opposed to now, when the frequently joked about “NHL Wheel of Justice” is just as good at making supplementary discipline decisions as anyone else.
NHL Player Safety Ruling on Dustin Brown’s Hit On Jason Pominville
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