Grandstand Central
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Grandstand Central

How to Fix The NHL in Three Easy Steps

It’s never too late to make New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s what should be on the NHL’s list.

It’s only been a half-season of hockey, but already there’s enough storylines to fill an entire year. The Vegas Golden Knights ignored everything an expansion team is expected to be by winning and doing so in high-flying style. Bettman is flirting with bringing a team to Seattle after shooting them down in 2016. The Lightning remembered they’re a good team, the Oilers remembered they’re not a good team, and the Avalanche remembered that they aren’t nearly as bad of a team as they looked last season. All in all, there’s been no shortage of compelling narratives.

And yet, there’s always room for improvement. So, with the calendar flipping to a new year, I sat down and identified three big changes that the NHL needs to make happen in 2018.

Politics has always influenced sports. Stop denying it and start getting better at dealing with it.

2017 was the year that politics officially entered the world of hockey. Or so it seems. The reality is that while hockey, like all sports, can provide a break from the depressing or aggravating aspects of daily life, professional sports do not exist in a vacuum. Nowhere was this made more clear than in Tampa Bay when J.T. Brown raised a fist in protest during the national anthem. Except, it also happened when the Calgary Flames decided to wade into the mayoral race in a transparent effort to secure public funding for a new stadium. In the former case, a black player quietly emulated the example of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In the latter, a massive corporation helmed by a man that claims he doesn’t “weigh into politics” promoted the election of a candidate in support of public stadium funding running against an incumbent that had come out against it. The self-serving hypocrisy of the NHL during these simultaneous scandals was painfully evident to anyone paying attention.

Unfortunately, the NHL has not struggled solely with issues involving race and ethnicity. The league has also fumbled its efforts to make hockey a better place for people that identify as LGBTQ+. In April 2013, the You Can Play Project formally announced a partnership with the NHL. The objective was to make the NHL “the most inclusive professional sports league in the world”. To that end, every team named a You Can Play ambassador in February 2017. Among the team captains and star players named was Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw, whose designation raised eyebrows since he was suspended for using an anti-gay slur in 2016.

Shaw formally apologized for the incident and attended sensitivity training. When the You Can Play ambassador initiative was getting off the ground, Shaw volunteered for the role. His intentions appeared sincere but the amount of mistrust he inspired was made clear by the many doubters that were quick to suspect Shaw had used the slur again earlier this season. While the NHL cleared Shaw of the allegation, it demonstrates why Shaw was a poor choice for the job to begin with. Trust is an essential foundation to building an inclusive community, and it’s undermined when the NHL seemingly uses public outreach to benefit a player over the public interest.

Finally, the fiasco that was the Pittsburgh Penguins visiting the White House was the swan song for the “politics doesn’t have a place in hockey” crowd (a crowd which includes many players). It’s time for the NHL to grow a backbone and be willing to disappoint people that haven’t yet realized that visiting the home of a president that has made misogynistic statements and voiced support for the white supremacists that marched in Charlottesville is tacit support for those views.

Restore credibility to the Department of Player Safety

Hockey is a physical game. 200-pound players fly around the ice in excess of 20 miles per hour, lining up checks like a kid smashing two action figures together. But, nobody wants the players to get injured, which is why there are rules and safety equipment and also why the NHL has the Department of Player Safety. The DPS monitors games and can issue suspensions and fines for any illegal behaviour deemed dangerous to players. A variety of factors are considered when assessing punishments including player history, game context, and the severity of any injuries that resulted from the player’s actions.

It’s that last measure that bothers a lot of people. Human bodies are both bizarrely resilient and weirdly fragile. A player might walk off a bone-crushing hit into the boards, but be incapacitated by a relatively tame high-stick. The same kind of hit might leave one player with a severe concussion that keeps them off the ice for weeks while another player might be lucky enough to just suffer a bloodied lip. In short, resulting injuries are not a good measure of the severity of a hit.

Injuries can be incredibly inconsistent, but the DPS should be trying to consistently punish illegal behaviour. A cross-check to the neck ought to receive roughly the same consequence. The reality instead is that the approach of the DPS is maddeningly uneven. It undermines the credibility of the DPS and leaves players with a muddled picture of how egregious the league views certain behaviour.

The DPS needs to hew more closely to the other factors listed in Article 18.2 of the CBA, particularly (a):

(a) The type of conduct involved: conduct in violation of League Playing Rules, and whether the conduct is intentional or reckless, and involves the use of excessive and unnecessary force. Players are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
(b) Injury to the opposing Player(s) involved in the incident.
(c) The status of the offender and, specifically, whether the Player has a history of being subject to Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct. Players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation.
(d) The situation of the game in which the incident occurred, for example: late in the game, lopsided score, prior events in the game.
(e) Such other factors as may be appropriate in the circumstances.

Punish certain behaviors more harshly because they’re linked to a high frequency of serious injury, but don’t decide that because the victimized player was able to skate off the ice under his own power or didn’t miss any games afterwards that an illegal hit wasn’t reckless and dangerous. Paint a clear, consistent picture that late hits, cross-checks to the neck or head, and slew foots won’t be tolerated regardless of the consequences in that instance to the targeted player. Not only will the DPS repair its credibility, it’ll help keep the players safe too.

Stop tinkering with the rules to increase scoring

You know what’s exciting? Hockey. It’s fast-paced, has big hits, heated rivalries, incredible saves, and amazing goals. If you ask the NHL about which of those actual matter, the list you would get in return would come back with one item: goals. The NHL has been making adjustment after adjustment to the rules of the game in recent years to try and increase goal scoring and boost the excitement level.

It’s worked. Goals are up and that’s great, but the tinkering needs to stop. Stopping a game for five minutes while the referees use video replay to review a possible offside violation is not exciting. Listening to play-by-play announcers discuss the subtle changes to face-off rules is not exciting. Watching a 60 minute hockey game with no flow because each team is marching to the penalty box every few minutes is not exciting.

It’s also not a good look changing goalie gear part-way through a season, a questionable plan put into motion last year. While the tighter calling of slashing has many proponents, you’d be hard pressed to find any goalies in favour of switching out their equipment in the middle of the season. The desperation of the NHL leadership was palpable with that decision and it didn’t speak to either their wisdom or the natural excitement already present in the game. Changing the rules year in and year out signals to everyone that even the people in charge of hockey think hockey needs fixing. It’s time for the owners, GMs, and the governors to leave the game alone for the time being. There’s enough off the ice to occupy their time.

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Corey Velgersdyk

Corey Velgersdyk

Expat hockey fan and writer for Grandstand Central and Hockey Wilderness

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