Without explicit policy, NHL suspensions will never make sense

"They may think we're targeting the Islanders. But we take each incident as separate, even if the fans and the general managers feel like there's a connection."

>>Colin Campbell

He's right. Many Islanders fans think there is a direct bias. I myself do not. I do think there could be an unconscious bias -- in the sense that it's easier to make bold decisions and "make examples" that enrage only a quasi-"small market" team's fans and media on Long Island, rather than decisions that enrage all of Canada and its media. (Islander Thomas Pock's suspension was such an example ... an example not followed one week later.)

But bias isn't my concern here. My concern is that we never, ever know what a suspension will be nor why. Specifically, my concern begins with this: "We take each incident as separate, even if [every one else in the known universe] feels like there's a connection."

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Maybe that's the problem. The NHL Circus Office of Mysterious Disciplinary Action wakes up each day with a new standard. They "take each incident as separate," so no one -- not fans watching, not players doing the would-be hurting, not coaches doing the "go get him" inciting, not GMs doing the calling up of replacements for injured/suspended players -- no one knows what is proper, nor what the consequences of a particular act of carelessness or revenge will entail.

No one knows how much it matters what side of the bed Campbell and crew woke up on, nor how much it matters if the victim is Sidney Crosby or just some young Islanders prospect. We don't know how much it matters if it's Montreal-Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada, or Atlanta-Florida on FSN-Contraction. We don't know if it matters if the player in question owes money to Phil Anschutz. We don't even know if -- and by how much -- it matters when the crime takes place in a playoff game.

Why? Because there is no set policy, no set list of consequences, no set of no-nos, Big No-Nos, and Absolutely Never-Evers. It's futile to look at past incidents (and punishments) as a guide because "each incident is separate." As with life, an NHLer's disciplinary fate is in the hands of unseen forces.

Hard to toe the line when you don't know where the line is drawn.

If Campbell and his crew make these decisions by themselves, why not explain the concerns and guides that go into each decision? They could come up with a check list of dangers and conditions that influence their thinking. They could even go through the angles of the hit and publicly discuss their perceptions, like Islander Outsider did here.

Ah, but information? That's not how the NHL rolls.

It's no wonder some players act like there are no consequences: Sometimes there are in fact consequences, but who can guess what they will be? The week Nielsen was hit, apparently a league memo went out noting that hits to the head would be watched. Intended hits to the head (and neck, and chin) that barely miss? Not so much.

Which results in the following collection of "each is separate" incidents:

  • Aggressor A, gliding slowly, has a puck carrier move around him, and he instinctively throws out his elbow (a horrible instinct) to impede the puck carrier. The elbow hits the puck carrier in the head and gives him a concussion. Five games for Thomas Pock. Justice served.
  • Aggressor B, a known agitator (does that matter?), taking a swooping turn to take aim at a player several strides away, delivers an elbow to the head (a malicious, very arguably premeditated tactic), without causing a concussion. Two games for Jarkko Ruutu.
  • Aggressor C, zooming laterally across his own zone, times his run around one opposing winger so he can deliver a booming check -- leaving his feet and leading with his elbow (two horrible habits) -- to a player who doesn't see him (not because his head is down, mind you, but because his view of the incoming missile is obscured by two other players). Now, because Aggressor C's victim saw him coming at the last moment, he ducks back. Thanks to that duck, the leading elbow does not crack his skull -- instead, the raised forearm and glove connected to that elbow smack him in the neck and chin, and the consequent buckling results in ankle/knee injuries that will keep him out 2-3 months. Two games for Mike Mottau.

"It was a tough one and we beat ourselves up about it all night," Campbell told Newsday on Monday morning. "We had 8-to-10 guys look at it, and after the hearing [Saturday morning], we took a couple extra hours to talk about it."

What does this mean, exactly? I am thrilled that Campbell and crew talked about it a lot. That's great -- even part of the job, you might say. The apparent agony of the decision warms my heart. But what did they discuss over these many hours? What standards (if any) are in play to guide their decision? What was said at the hearing? If "every incident is separate," what is the evidence-in-a-vacuum that determines any wrong, and how much punishment that wrong deserves?

Pock was contrite immediately following his hit; must've made it easy on the league. Mottau, on the other hand, was laughing in the penalty box, and later said, "If he didn't twist his knee up, he would have been fine." (No, buddy. If he didn't duck -- which twisted his knee up -- he'd have been out cold.)

This is yet another area where the NHL's lack of explicit communication with its constituents does everyone a disservice -- Campbell's reputation included. They could establish a thorough policy on acceptable checking tactics and acceptable evasive maneuvers (e.g. Is it OK to duck when a guy tries to take your head off? Is it OK to turn your face to the boards to ensure that if an incoming checker hits you, he's illegally hitting you from behind? Is it OK to line someone up from a zone away and, upon arrival, get your elbows up -- as long as your elbow misses? We fans generally don't think so, but the message from the league is muddy as usual).

They could release an explicit rendition of their suspension decisions, and how they're made. Instead we get this, to a Newsday columnist:

"It just wasn't a flagrant elbow to the head, the way the Pock one was."

Gee, thanks! The official NHL release says he was suspended "for an incident that took place during NHL Game #280 last night against the New York Islanders." That's it.

Apparently -- now we don't know this, because even though Campbell commented on this incident, "we take each incident as separate" -- it matters that Pock's elbow caused a direct head injury, whereas Mottau's direct attempted elbow did not cause a direct head injury. Never mind that Frans Nielsen probably avoided the head injury by leaning back -- and that duck/lean back was part of the process that caused 2-3 months' worth of leg injuries.

So if a guy knocks your head out through a poor but unpremeditated move, it's five games. If a guy tries to take your head off and fails (Ruutu), it's two games. If a guy tries to take your head off but fails because you ducked -- and in the process of ducking, you wrecked your ankle/knee (this is the NHL, so info is scarce) for 8-12 weeks? Two games.

Until next time, when it just might be different. Or not. Make sense?

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