With all of the violence and inconsistent suspension rulings handed down this season - and in particular in these playoffs - the NHL's supplemental discipline process has once again received a lot of attention. Nobody seems particularly happy with the current system; not the fans, not the players, not the coaches and GMs, not the media, just nobody. Most recently, Raffi Torres received a 25 game suspension, the longest suspension in playoff history, in a ruling that is widely considered to be using Raffi Torres as a scapegoat and/or "sending a message".
In light of the controversy surrounding the NHL's supplemental discipline process, I figured I'd take a crack at fixing it. I will first attempt to identify the major sources of problems and areas where the current system of supplemental discipline can be improved. In part two, I will outline the system I would like to see implemented. I don't expect these changes to be implemented any time soon (or ever, really), but a guy can hope, right?
One of the biggest causes of problems and controversy with the current supplemental discipline process is the vagueness of the entire process. As far as anyone can tell, there are no clear criteria for what makes some incidents suspendable while seemingly similar incidents are not. Similarly, there seems to not be any criteria for what makes one incident more severe than another and there don't seem to be any rules regarding the lengths of the suspensions handed out or when to give out a suspension. With this in mind, the first thing I'm going to do is clearly define suspension criteria. Furthermore, my system will have clear punishments and sentencing guidelines corresponding to each infraction.
Another big area of trouble with the current supplemental discipline process is subjectivity. Suspension rulings are made by a small group of individuals who try to make judgments about vague, abstract concepts like "mindset" or "intent". In addition, rulings are rarely - if ever - made by totally impartial parties. While Brendan Shanahan, Mathieu Schneider and others may try to be impartial, they aren't. The fact of the matter is that they can't be impartial because they've played against (or with) many of the individuals they're judging; they have preconceived notions about who they like, who they dislike, who's a dirty player, and the like. We saw this in late 2010 when internal e-mails (and some digging by Tyler Dellow) revealed that Colin Campbell, then the NHL's head disciplinarian, thinks that Marc Savard is a "little fake artist". Campbell's basis for this prejudice? Campbell "had him in New York" over a decade earlier.
A third controversial issue with the current supplemental discipline process is whether or not injuries should factor into the decisions. I know some people will disagree with me on this, but I would like the system to suspend based on actions, not results. Does the fact that Henrik Zetterberg got his glove up in time to mitigate some of the damage make Shea Weber slamming Zetterberg's head against the glass any more acceptable? In my mind, the answer is no. Furthermore, different people respond differently to various injuries; what might sideline one player for three weeks could sideline another player for twice as long. Therefore, I don't believe it would be fair to suspend based on injuries.
Finally, perhaps the biggest problem with the current supplemental discipline problem is that it clearly hasn't been working. We've seen very little evidence that the current system has deterred players from offending a second or third time (or in several cases, a fifth or sixth time) and there have been complaints far and wide - and across ranks - in the hockey world. Two of the three tools in the league's tool belt - warnings and fines - are virtually meaningless. How often do we listen to warnings when we know the consequences will be minimal? Not very often, right?. Similarly, a $2,500 fine is simply not an effective deterrent for NHL players and everybody knows it. For a guy making the league minimum ($525,000) that fine isn't even half of one percent of his gross income. It's a blip on the radar.
Consider that the average American or Canadian makes nearly $50,000. That $2,500 to an NHLer is less than the equivalent of a $250 speeding ticket to you or I. Not a great deterrent, right? People often speed knowing full well that we might have to pay a fine, but we do it anyway because we deem other things to be more important. If we get caught it sucks a little bit but the whole thing will likely be forgotten in a matter of days. Likewise, players deem winning, keeping their roster spot, proving themselves to their coach and teammates, and about a thousand other things, to be more important than a $2,500 fine. To NHL players making the league minimum, a $2500 fine is the same thing. For players making significantly more than the league minimum, the fine is even more meaningless.
Furthermore, fines and warnings do nothing to change the teams' chances of winning hockey games. In general, I believe that the most effective ways to get players (and coaches and teams) to change their ways are to hurt the team first and then to hurt their wallets. Many players seem to agree with this. For example, take the 2010-2011 MVP, Henrik Sedin:
"If you're hurting the team, if you're losing games because of an elbow or a charging or boarding, you're going to stop doing it."
It seems that even players agree that discipline is most effective when players feel that they've hurt their team's chances to win and they've let their teammates down. Even Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's VP of Player Safety and head disciplinarian, agrees, saying:
"I can attest to this as a player, if you ask me if I'd rather have a four-game suspension in November than a one-game suspension in the playoffs, I'd take the four-game suspension in November".
The more you hurt your own team (and in more important games), the more effective supplemental discipline is. Besides, since the CBA limits the extent to which the NHL can hurt their wallets, the most effective option left is to make players feel that they've let their team and teammates down.
Now that we've gone over some of the biggest problems with the current system - subjectivity, vague suspension criteria, no sentencing guidelines, etc. - we can target these issues as areas to improve upon. In part 2, which will hopefully be up in a few days, I'll outline the supplemental discipline system I'd like to see implemented in place of the current system.