The middle of summer, in the depths of the offseason, may seem like a strange time to talk about suspension reform. However, the offseason might just be the best time to talk about it, as we are free of any recent incidents to tinge our perspectives and incite our emotions.
I believe that most NHL fans would label themselves as dissatisfied with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Lack of consistency, overly soft suspensions, and apparent double-standards are among the most common complaints. However, one rarely hears actual proposals of concrete changes that could bring about meaningful reform. Instead, talk usually consists of generic “cracking down” and nothing more. With that in mind, here are three ideas for changes that could bring about NHL suspension reform, and a note at the end on how these changes must be achieved.
Intent Over Injury
Currently, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety appears to weigh injury much more heavily than intent. Players committing nearly identical acts can receive wildly different punishment depending on how badly their victim is injured. Oftentimes, however, whether a player is injured on a play is more a matter of luck and circumstances than the severity of the offending player’s actions.
Instead, focusing on the intent behind a play more than the resulting injury would send the message that the NHL wants to eliminate ALL dangerous plays, not just those that have severe results. If a player knew that they would be judged almost as harshly for a hit-to-the-head that barely connected as they would for one that knocked an opponent clean out, they would be much more careful to avoid such a play at all costs.
This one is much trickier to establish, because the NHL will never actually admit that it has a double-standard that needs fixing. However, any long-time observer of the league knows that star players can commit egregious acts and get away with a slap on the wrist, while 4th liners are often made examples of with comparably lengthy bans. A two-tier system of acceptable acts is no recipe for a safe league.
It’s easy to see the league’s motivation to have such a double-standard. Star players sell tickets and move jerseys, and 4th liners generally don’t. The league takes a financial hit when a star player misses time, and so they have a vested interest in keeping them on the ice. In my endnote, I will discuss how fans can play a role in changing this.
This one is perhaps the biggest stretch, but it may be necessary if the NHL wants to truly eliminate certain acts, such as hits-to-the-head and hits on players in vulnerable positions. The NHL could explore setting mandatory minimum suspensions for the acts that it deems most worthy of outright elimination. No doubt this would lead to immediate controversy, especially when an important player earns a suspension for a play that seemed relatively harmless and did not result in an injury. However, it is almost certain that this would put a near complete stop to these plays within a season.
Part of the mandatory minimum system would have to include something involving repeat offenders. A mandatory and escalating series of additional suspensions that are automatically tacked on to any punishments received by repeat offenders could quickly add up. This would really go a long way towards eliminating serial offenders from the game, and keeping the league safer for everyone.
Endnote on Fans’ Role in Enacting Change
Ultimately, the NHL isn’t going to make major changes to their suspension system without some sort of external pressure. In the past, bad PR from brutal injuries and horrific acts have forced the NHL to make changes, but this isn’t exactly the optimal path for improvement. After all, in order for this to happen, somebody needs to get hurt first.
An alternative external factor to motivate the NHL is fan pressure. Right now, the NHL knows that it will lose money if it suspends major stars for lengthy periods, but fan pressure and campaigning could help send the message that fans would rather have a safe league than one where star players have immunity. If it comes down to it, boycotts in the cases of inconsistent or inadequate suspensions may send the strongest message of all. It’s always a challenge to convince fans to deprive themselves of league content, but ultimately, fans are at their strongest when they vote with their wallet.