It should never shock anyone when the NHL gets something wrong. It gets in a lot of practice in this regard, usually at least once a week. But this thing with Chris Pronger working for the Department of Player Safety actually might be the wrongest they ever got it.
Let's start out with the acknowledgment, first and foremost, that no, just because Pronger would be weighing in on suspensions not involving the Flyers, his former team would not essentially have free reign to start two-handing every star forward who came across the blue line. That is not, as Greg pointed out yesterday, how the system works. Everyone weighs in, and a decision is ultimately rendered by the man in charge.
Even if Pronger was sitting in on every suspension meeting involving a Flyer saying, “Oh that spear to Johnny Boychuk's face by Zac Rinaldo? I think a five and a game was plenty,” he'd be shouted down by the other people in the room and that'd be the end of it. Eventually, people would stop listening. But what the league is really doing in giving Pronger a job in that department, specifically, is essentially opened them up for some remarkably easy criticism. Heavy, easy criticism, every time an Eastern Conference opponent within 10 points of the Flyers had a player involved in a questionable hit.
Here's a scenario: It's late February and the Flyers are four points out of a wild card spot currently occupied by the Blue Jackets. James Wisniewski hits Brian Gionta from behind but it's one of those things where you can make an argument that the guy put himself in a vulnerable position at the last second. The league suspends him two games, which seems a little harsh but not outside the realm of what would normally be reasonable. Now, you might be able to say that everything's fine and dandy with that process. But what do you think Blue Jackets fans will say? How about, “Well of course they suspended Wisniewski two games. Look who's working for the Department of Player Safety!”
Here's another: Someone takes a no-doubt-about-it, he-tried-to-kill-him run at Sidney Crosby. Doesn't really matter who. Crosby's on the shelf for a few weeks or more with another “upper-body injury.” This offender gets off relatively light with three games, with the suspension video citing his lack of “repeat offender” status, as well as the fact that Crosby changed direction at the last second and had his chin taken out. What do you suppose Penguins fans have to say about it? Probably something like, “Of course they let him off the hook easy. Look who's working for the Department of Player Safety!” The Flyers and Penguins have a rivalry, etc.
There are plenty of scenarios you could play out exactly like this. Even if they're wrong about Pronger making a call in either of these cases — maybe Pronger advocated for less punishment for Wisniewskil, and a stiffer one for the guy who clobbered Crosby — the fact that you could even perceive it that way is toxic to the idea that fans can trust in the league's ability to punish people properly. And maybe those people would have complained about the same thing anyway, but why give them additional (and, one should note, well-founded) ammo?
The league's goal in operating the Department of Player Safety should be to levy justice while simultaneously striving to avoid any whiff of impropriety, even when it's pretty obvious there's always going to be bias in the system. This league is one in which everyone knows everyone else, having worked for or with or against them. Almost to a man you can draw lines for multiple biases in the department, plus there's the fact that even if you can be perceived as a neutral, maybe you just don't like a particular player (let's say, for instance, a certain Denver-based beat writer works for the league and has to render a decision to a certain young Kings defenseman; potential for needlessly colorful language in the suspension video aside, a pre-existing bias would certainly enter into the equation).
The idea that Pronger could poison the entire DOPS office with his pro-Flyers rhetoric is silly and immature and more than a little bit based in fanboyism. The argument that he might be able to impact decisions that could be beneficial to his now-former team at least has a wobbly leg to stand on. That can't be acceptable for the NHL.
There's also the fact that he's — seriously — still collecting a paycheck from the Flyers, which should render him unable to hold any other jobs in hockey until his contract is over. The Flyers were playing last night as the news that this was really and truly happening started to filter out. And obviously Marc Savard is kinda in the same boat where he's working as a scout in junior hockey. The latter instance is a little more defensible, simply because you can say, “Oh, well, nothing he does impacts the NHL or anything like that.” Meanwhile, everything Pronger would do in his DOPS role would impact it.
Let's put it another way. If Pronger retired tomorrow and joined the Player Safety committee, then even though he is still exactly the same person making exactly the same decisions, there's one thing that's different: He wouldn't be violating the CBA. (Though that'd stick the Flyers with a big penalty, of course.) Because let's face it here, the Flyers and Bruins are basically saved from having to dump huge amounts of money which would otherwise hit them as a penalty for having intentionally circumvented the cap by the fact that these players are no longer physically capable of playing hockey. You feel gutted for the players, of course, to lose their livelihood, but the Bruins and Flyers are basically rewarded for being bad actors under the old CBA because they were lucky enough to have those players get injured. Likewise, there has to be some disgruntled Canucks fan out there looking to kneecap Roberto Luongo the second there's a retirement rumor, just to save the Canucks the recapture penalty.
It cannot be stated emphatically enough: Pronger joining the league office, or drawing a paycheck from the Flyers' front office (which he technically hasn't done so far as we know) is in direct violation of Article 26 of the CBA: A player cannot be paid by anyone other than his team, to do anything but play, while he is under a contract. Which Pronger still is, and you can't interpret it as being anything other than a load of BS. The Flyers are, as per the rules of the CBA agreed upon by league and players alike, no longer cap compliant. Are they gonna have to clear any roster space? Seems like the answer is no, which should have 28 other teams all kinds of pissed. (And hey, here's another bit of potential impropriety: The Bruins and Flyers sure do make a lot of money for the league, eh? Funny how they get to skirt this rule with their two players taking jobs elsewhere.)
The problem isn't necessarily the conflict of interest, even if it was there, it's that the league's own rules should prevent this from happening. It literally couldn't be any clearer, and yet here it is, happening anyway.
Obviously, Pronger will be a significant font of wisdom from which the suspension crew could draw. Few have ever patrolled the blue line more effectively than he, and only slightly more have ever been as eager to throw an elbow into an opponent's chin just as a nice little how-do-you-do. This is like when master art forgers and hackers start working for the government after they're arrested: They're using their unmatched skills for good instead of evil. But in this specific instance, such a CI agreement would be stupid.
The league generally doesn't seem to have much credibility with the fans to begin with, y'know? How long did we laugh to each other about how much of a joke the suspension process used to be? Wheel of Justice and everything, right? And then over the last few years, Brendan Shanahan built things up to the point where the Department of Player Safety actually has a little bit of cachet. It still gets things wrong, but it's clearly been enacted in good faith, for the most part. So why take a sledgehammer to it the second Shanahan's out the door by bringing in a literal team employee, regardless of who it is? If Matt Cooke suffered a career-ending injury tomorrow and took the same DOPS job — owing to his unrivaled ability to try to cripple his opponents — people would likewise be perfectly right to criticize the decision.
You want to bring a guy of Pronger's caliber to weigh in on the incredibly important topic of player safety. That makes perfect sense. Who wouldn't? But maybe you just wait a few more years before you let him do it. Because then everyone's fine with it. And there's no debate to be had. And the CBA doesn't get violated to the benefit of one team over 29 others in the process.
Pretty simple. But then the NHL has never done “simple” well.