Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the frustration with the busy start for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety; the simplest response to the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby debacle; Fred Shero’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame; and a couple of extra Chris Chelios anecdotes.
FIRST PERIOD: No excuse for early season spike in suspensions
The NHL’s department of player safety has been busy. Seventeen players have been suspended (seven in the preseason, 10 in the regular season) for a total of 78 games (16 in the preseason, 62 in the regular season). They have forfeited $908,180.78. Four more players have been fined a total of $14,457.27.
The numbers are inflated by an automatic 10-game suspension to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ David Clarkson for leaving the bench in a preseason game. That cost him a cool $269,230.80. But there have been five suspensions for illegal checks to the head, three for boarding and two for charging in the regular season already.
Although incidents seem to have peaks and valleys and this might be just a spike, it is the most the DPS has seen at the start of a season, and it is frustrating considering this is the third season the DPS has been explaining suspensions via video.
One reason for the videos is transparency, but another is education. There should be no excuse for executives, coaches and players not to know where the line is drawn or at least have a good idea of where the gray area is.
“You hear, ‘We don’t know what is or isn’t legal,’ ” said Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s head of the Department of Player Safety. “Well, we showed you.”
No one expects executives, coaches and players – not to mention media and fans – to do what the DPS does. Members of Shanahan’s staff watch every minute of every game in a room at NHL headquarters full of TVs, DVRs, laptops and tablets, with a list of every fine and suspension in the last three years pinned to the back wall.
They look at every hit. If a hit is even borderline, they clip the video and send it to Shanahan and his lieutenants. If Shanahan thinks there is even a chance a hit might be worth a fine or suspension, he sends out a one-word email: “Thoughts?” Everyone shares their opinion independently, responding only to Shanahan, before Shanahan decides whether to take the next step. In 2011-12, the last full season, they clipped more than 800 incidents. They had 65 hearings.
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Every incident is different. There are often internal debates – disagreements over whether something is worth a fine or suspension, and then disagreements over how long a suspension should be – so it makes sense that there are external debates. Shanahan makes the final call and is not perfect. He is open to criticism.
(For the record, I thought the Buffalo Sabres’ John Scott actually deserved a little less than seven games for his illegal check to the head of the Boston Bruins’ Loui Eriksson, as ugly as the hit was, even though Eriksson was concussed, because Scott had no history of that type of hit. I also thought the Anaheim Ducks’ Kyle Palmieri got away with an illegal check to the head of the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan on Monday night, because he made the head the main point of contact on the way to the back shoulder and could have avoided it. Just my opinion. Just two examples.)
But while you can criticize the consistency of the results, it’s hard to criticize the consistency and integrity of the process. It’s hard to say members of the DPS staff don’t know the rulebook, the history, the context and the shades of gray better anyone else. And it’s a shame that when the DPS does release suspension videos, too many people don’t watch them, or watch them only when their team is involved, or ignore them. Too often people split hairs over one incident and miss the big picture. The point isn’t just to punish, but to prevent.
“I think that this job can be done several ways,” Shanahan said. “One might be suspending for every little thing. Another might be letting everything go. We try to do enough that the game still is physical and that its traditions are honored, but also transition it into a game in which people are getting injured less often.”
Shanahan never set out to make statements and doesn’t have the mandate to make them even if he wanted to. NHL teams and the NHL Players’ Association don’t want long suspensions, except for repeat offenders, and suspensions of six games or more can now be appealed all the way to a neutral arbitrator under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Education has to be the key. So doesn’t it drive Shanahan crazy when some people don’t pay attention and the hits keep coming? “Sometimes,” Shanahan said. But he said most NHL players were getting it, youth hockey coaches and players were learning from it and “most difficult things take time.”
“If you’re looking for a two- or three- or four- or five-year window to get those kind of results and a pat on the back,” Shanahan said, “then you shouldn’t be working in our department.”
SECOND PERIOD: The simplest solution in the wake of Emery-Holtby
The incident people have been talking about lately didn’t result in a suspension, of course. Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery went after Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby last week amid a melee in a Flyers blowout loss.
One reported idea the NHL’s general managers might discuss when they meet Tuesday in Toronto – an automatic suspension for a goalie going down the ice to fight another goalie – doesn’t make sense. Even if you don’t want goalies fighting each other because of their bulky equipment and the risk of injury, you can’t expect a goalie to stand and watch if the other goalie is involved in a melee at the other end of the ice and it’s a 6-on-5 fight. And what made the Emery-Holtby battle distasteful wasn’t the fact that they were goalies. It was that Emery forced Holtby to fight and kept hitting him in the head.
Forget the larger fighting debate for a moment. Focus on this specific type of incident. If you don’t want this to happen again without a suspension, you have to start with why Emery was not suspended. Though he broke multiple rules and was penalized in the game, nothing rose to the level of supplemental discipline.
Rule 46.2 defines an “aggressor” as a player who “continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.” The DPS considered Holtby a reluctant combatant more than an unwilling combatant, because he did engage Emery, if only to defend himself, and did not skate away or turtle. Even if Emery continued to punch Holtby in an attempt to punish him when Holtby was in a defenseless position, Rule 46.17 outlines a suspension scale for aggressors – three times in one regular season gets two games, four times gets four games, five times gets six games.
The simplest solution is to eliminate the suspension scale. State that anyone who is deemed an aggressor shall be reviewed for supplemental discipline. Unless the NHL changes other rules that govern fighting, the DPS probably still wouldn’t suspend someone for winning a lopsided fight, even if he caused an injury. If you fight, you might win, you might lose and you might get hurt. That is the risk you take, and it happens often to varying degrees. But if someone clearly forces another player to fight like Emery did and keeps pummeling – whether it’s a goalie, a defenseman or a forward – the DPS should have the power to address it.
THIRD PERIOD: Fred Shero finally makes the Hockey Hall of Fame
Ray Shero remembers waking up early as a kid. His father, Fred, would be having coffee and getting ready to go to the rink. “And I’d be there kind of just hoping he’d say, ‘Hey, you want to come to practice?’ ” Shero said.
Now Ray Shero is the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he will give the speech Monday in Toronto as his father is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. His father died in 1990. His mother died three years ago. But his kids are 18 and 15, and he said for them “to see their Grampy, who they never met, going into the Hockey Hall of Fame is pretty special.”
Fred Shero is most famous for coaching the Philadelphia Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75, plus a third straight appearance in the Cup final in ’76. Those were the Broad Street Bullies. But he coached the players he had, and he joins the owner (Ed Snider), the GM (Keith Allen) and three players (Bill Barber, Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent) in the Hall. “I think that says something about what those teams were about – not just fighting,” Ray Shero said.
Fred Shero also played for 13 years – mostly in the minors, but 145 games with the New York Rangers. He won titles as a coach at several levels – the IHL, AHL and CHL before the NHL – and led the Rangers to a Cup final, too. He was an innovator, the first to adopt the Soviet style of five-man units, the first to hire an assistant coach, among the first to use morning skates and video. He was a motivator, known for his sayings. The day the Flyers won their first Cup, he wrote on the board: “Win together today and we will walk together forever.” The quote is often repeated. It is written on the wall at NHL headquarters.
“If you take a look at it, in the builder category there have not been many coaches inducted,” Ray Shero said. “I don’t know why that it is. I’m hopeful now with my dad being inducted that might open the door for Pat Burns and someone else down the line. I didn’t really give up on it, but I never really thought about it. I think what’s important is, if it never happened, it wouldn’t have diminished what he contributed to the game.”
OVERTIME: Chelios’ first hockey fight, and his fight for power play time
More than 4,000 words – split between a story and a Q&A this week – weren’t even close to capturing Chris Chelios as he heads into the Hall of Fame. There are so many Cheli stories, they won’t fit into the book he is writing. Here are a couple more:
— Chelios went from San Diego to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to play Tier II junior at 17 years old. Shortly after he arrived, coach Larry Billows asked if he could fight.
“I’ve never been in a fight on the ice in my life,” Chelios said.
“Well, you’re going to have to be tough to play in this league,” Billows said. “You’re the only American.”
“I’ll try,” Chelios said.
Chelios said he did “OK” in his first fight. “Things kept going well,” he said, “and that was it.”
But teammate Bobby Parker remembers it a little differently.
“He grabbed the guy, and he slapped him with his glove – just kind of with an open palm, slapped him – and the guy just drilled him,” Parker said with a laugh. “It was pretty funny. But he learned quick. That never happened again. I think he even got a black eye out of it. Oh, he got teased about that.”
— Late in his career with the Detroit Red Wings, Chelios could swallow sitting on the bench and watching the power play – as long as it was producing.
“As frustrated as I was that I wasn’t on the power play, we had the best power play, so how could you second-guess the coaching?” Chelios said. “But if things weren’t going well, I would be the first one going to the coaching office saying, ‘I’ve done this, and I can do it.’ ”
Todd McLellan, now the coach of the San Jose Sharks, used to be a Detroit assistant in charge of the power play. McLellan said Chelios used to come by all the time and tell him: “If you want the power play to work, get me on it.” McLellan would tell Chelios to see Wings coach Mike Babcock.
So one day the coaches came into the office, and a VCR was running a highlight tape of Chelios scoring power play goals. Some of the goals were so ancient they were against, say, the Hartford Whalers, but the coaches got the point.
“Cheli snuck in,” McLellan said with a smile, “and I’m sure he put the video on just to send us the message that ‘I can still do this.’ ”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— New York Rangers center Derek Stepan didn’t score in his first dozen games, after sitting out training camp to negotiate a two-year, $6.15 million contract as a restricted free agent. He now has four goals in three games. “I think I’m starting to get my legs,” he said. “As you can see, I’m on pucks more and making better plays.” The Rangers need Stepan to score especially now that Rick Nash is lost in the concussion netherworld. Nash has been out a month. No updates.
— Madison Square Garden is beautiful after its billion-dollar renovation. But will MSG become more like the ACC with a quieter, more corporate crowd? The Rangers hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Wednesday night rivalry game. They won, 5-1. The World’s Most Famous Arena did get loud at times. But when the anti-Sidney Crosby chants are weaker than they used to be, you wonder.
— The GMs are expected to discuss the new hybrid icing rule Tuesday in Toronto. Linesmen are now required to make two judgment calls on one play – whether the puck will cross the line, who will win the race – and there is concern about how they have handled it in the early going. Another concern: blowing the whistle at the right time and stopping the clock properly. It hasn’t been an issue yet, but say there is an icing call at a key time in a playoff game. It could have a major impact, and it would be impossible to review on video.
— Strange but true: The 13-3-1 Anaheim Ducks lead the NHL with 27 points despite the worst special teams in the league – dead-last on the power play (9.4 percent) and 28th on the penalty kill (75.0 percent). Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux has zero goals in 14 games this season, zero goals in 20 games going back to last season.
— Best story in the NHL: Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding leads the league in goals-against average (1.09) and save percentage (.951) while managing multiple sclerosis. The subject of MS is a non-starter with him during the season, because he doesn’t want to be treated as a hockey player with MS, just as a hockey player. But even if you put aside MS and treat him as a hockey player coming back from a physical problem – a bad back, say, or a concussion – it’s still a great story. He played only five regular-season games in 2012-13. He put up a 3.24 goals-against average and .863 save percentage. And look at him now.
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