Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Blueprint for Improving Player Safety and Reducing Fighting in Hockey.

I have made the point several times that fighting is a symptom of player frustration over officiating and discipline.  When a player is hit hard with a cheap shot, either they or a teammate feels compelled to take revenge.  A 2 minute power play is not enough of a penalty to reduce this emotion.  And if the player is hurt then the need for revenge is even stronger and not reduced one iota by a 2 or 3 game suspension for the culprit.  The fight becomes one of the most predictable acts in the NHL.
What is needed is a rethink of NHL rules and the disciplinary process.  They need to focus on safety by implementing rules that either changes the behaviour of the dangerous player, or drives them out of the game.  Penalties that severely punish the team of the offender will also change the attitude of the general manger and roster decisions by the coach.  Make it costly for a team to dress a less skilled player who constantly plays on the edge, or over it.   Eliminate the need for revenge and, with a small change in the fighting major penalty, the need to drop the gloves will naturally be reduced.

The basic strategy outlined below is patterned on what the USHL introduced for the 2012-13 season.  I’ve outlined their new process and highlighted comments from USHL executives in my post; Update on Fighting in Junior Hockey.   Any additional suggestions are not new and I’m sure you have come across them in various articles or blogs in the past few years.   I’ve tried to incorporate them into a disciplinary system that I believe will change behavior and make hockey a safer sport without fundamentally altering the game that we love.

Dangerous Penalties

Certain types of NHL infractions are either clearly intentional or potentially dangerous.  These should be identified as such and carry added weight for both the offender and his team.   The penalty time should increase, the offender should stay in the box for the entire penalty (no release upon a goal by the opponent) and the totals should be tracked for disciplinary purposes.  

Dangerous penalties should automatically call for a 5 minute stint in the penalty box, and would include the following:
  • Boarding
  • Charging
  • Cross-checking
  • Elbowing
  • Slashing
  • Spearing
  • Checking from behind
Certain penalties should call for a 5 minute major AND an automatic game misconduct:
  • Fighting
  • Illegal Check to the Head
The calling of Dangerous Penalties, with the resulting full 5 minute stay in the box, would place the offending team at a tremendous disadvantage.  It would immediately change the behaviour of players who would have to clean up their game to stay in the league.  Coaches would be a lot more selective about who plays, rewarding those who can play tough and stay out of the box while sending the undisciplined goon or agitator to the minors.  Players who would have tried to take revenge via a dangerous penalty or by fighting would understand going in that they are going to put their team on an extended penalty kill or they going to the dressing room early.

The automatic game misconduct for fighting would pretty much put an end to the ridiculous and useless staged fight.   Not many coaches would dress their 4th line enforcers for the opening faceoff, only to see them immediately tossed for the match.  This rule alone would eventually convince teams to use that roster spot for a power forward with skill and eliminate the one-dimensional “enforcer”.

Supplemental Discipline for Dangerous Play

Players who have accumulated a set amount of Dangerous Penalties, say 20 minutes worth, would have to attend a hearing with NHL’s Department of Player Safety, accompanied by their coach.  They would review the infractions with the player and ask what plans are in place to eliminate this activity from their play.  Players who have accumulated 25 minutes of Dangerous Penalties would automatically be suspended for 3 games.  At 30 minutes it becomes 10 games, 35 minutes would be 20 games and 40 minutes of Dangerous Penalties would result in a 30 game suspension.

The supplemental discipline for minutes accumulated will remove the so called “rats” from the game.  If they can’t learn to play tough without going over the edge then they’ll sit on the sidelines for extended periods and eventually sent to the minors.  The NHL will send a clear message to offenders and their coaches through the early intervention meeting.  Overall players will understand that they have to respect each other, and the game, or risk hurting the team and their careers.

Overall this combination of changes to penalties and increased discipline has several advantages:
  • Working together, the NHL and NHLPA can communicate to fans, sponsors, advertisers and the sports media that they are serious about player safety.  The image of the game will improve dramatically.
  • A full 5 minute penalty for a dangerous penalty, like cross-checking or boarding, will hurt the offending team and the culprits will be thinking about their actions while opponents are scoring multiple times during the resulting power play.
  • Including the coach in the intervention meetings, when players are called in to review their dangerous actions on the ice, communicates that both the team and the player are responsible for what occurs on the ice.
  • Players that can hit cleanly, with the intent of separating the opponent from the puck versus his head from his body, will be prized under these rules.  Those who are reckless and prone to vicious hits or stick fouls will become rare.  Hitting will become more strategic and injuries will be reduced.
  • An automatic game misconduct for fighting will very likely be the nail in the coffin for the goons who circle each other after an opening face-off or in the last few minutes of a blow-out.  
  • Smart teams will make better roster choices and end up taking advantage of teams that value  intimidation in the form of violent and dangerous play.  This will speed learning and adaptation of the new rules.
  • When players experience officiating and suspensions that have real consequences; the motivation for revenge will be greatly reduced.   Fighting will become unnecessary and rare.

This new approach to reducing injuries and fights can be implemented in stages, allowing players to adjust and ease concerns that the NHL is altering the game too rapidly.  Dangerous penalties could start at 2 minutes with full time served.  If the behaviour of players doesn’t change then increase it to 3 or 4 minutes.  That incremental approach can be done by penalty type if the league is looking to reduce certain types of infractions.  They can slowly ratchet down the dangerous penalty thresholds for suspensions and weed out those players who have no concern about injuring an opponent with reckless use of their stick or body.

The USHL has stated that Shanahan was consulted when they were planning their rule changes for this season.  Therefore this post may not be that far off what we see in the seasons ahead.  That would be a positive change for the NHL and should result in fewer injuries and a greater emphasis on skill and tough but clean action.  We can only hope league executives and the NHLPA recognizes the need for a change and finds the courage to cooperate in making it a reality.

1 comment:

  1. Don't stop writing about this, no matter how much backlash you get. There are very few people willing to do it in the hockey community and far too many enable the culture of fighting and the damage it brings to the sport.