December 13, 2011
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andy Sutton is currently serving an eight-game suspension for his hit on Alexei Ponikarovsky of the Carolina Hurricanes. Between that and his other 2011-12 season suspension for a headshot on Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, Sutton has lost "12 percent of his $2,250,000 salary," according to the Edmonton Journal.
Naturally, Sutton feels he's been victimized.
He feels players with the puck "have to start keeping our heads up and knowing who's on the ice." He feels a slight move by the player being checked can turn a good hit into a suspendable offense, even if Sutton approaches the hit "with the best of intentions."
But more than anything, Sutton feels like he and other players are getting jobbed by a system in which the NHL is the judge, jury and executioner, and then also the Appellate Court. It's like if Judge Dredd were running a pro sports league. Which, come to think of it, would make Board of Governors meetings much shorter.
With increasing scrutiny over the frequency and severity of supplemental discipline in the National Hockey League, does there need to be some independent review process for suspensions and fines?
Via Derek Van Diest of QMI, Sutton makes the case for a review board:
"There absolutely should be (an appeal process)," Sutton said. "My only course of action is that I can appeal to Gary Bettman. That's not going to change anything. Going forward in the new CBA we have to make strides in that regard. We should have an impartial arbitration committee that's going to take a look at this have my people on my side, have the NHL on their side and have an independent party that's going to make these decisions. It's not just one guy making all these decisions."
The NHL would argue that it's not just one person — Department of Player Safety sheriff Brendan Shanahan — making these decisions, but rather a collection of people that includes former NHLer Rob Blake and former NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell.
The common thread between them: NHL.
As in their employer. As in the reason players like Sutton don't feel the process is fair.
He's not alone. NHLPA chief Donald Fehr, in an October interview with Hockey Night In Canada Radio, said the following about the suspension process (via NESN):
"Basically, you have a situation in which you have discipline involved, it's a modification of a player's contract. You don't get to work and you don't get to get paid," Fehr said. "Normally when someone wants to modify your contract, you have resort to some sort of impartial mechanism to decide if that guy is right. If somebody wants to throw you out of your apartment, you can contest it. If you get a parking ticket, you can contest it. And it's not the same person who levies the penalty who gets to decide whether you're right and it's not somebody with whom he works, that gets to decide if you're right. So that's an issue."
Eric Lindros is one of the players that's suggested a three-person independent panel for NHL supplemental discipline rather than the current model. It's something we've supported in the past, although it's not without its problems; namely, could you find a "third vote" on a panel like this that has the requisite hockey knowledge for dolling out suspensions, while also having none of the political or business ties that would potentially influences his or her views?
In other words: Is there something in hockey that can truly be an independent voice given the size of the community? Someone who isn't angling for a job with some team after their gig is up? If so, who pays them to sit on the panel?
An appeals process is tricky, but we agree on one point: The idea that Gary Bettman is the final word on suspension protests is absurd.
As Pierre Marc-Bouchard discovered earlier this season, Bettman isn't undermining Shanahan's department for even the most glaring miscarriages of justice. The notion of some level of check or balance that isn't also the commissioner of the National Hockey League is, pardon the terrible pun, "appealing."
But to what end? The department of player safety is supposed to be the check/balance on the on-ice officials — the department that punishes the unpunished and corrects officiating mistakes. Do we then need to have a Supreme Court that supersedes both the officials and the NHL? And then what if that proves faulty? Who watches the watchmen?
Separated from his wearisome whining about getting suspended for dangerous hits under well-established rules, Sutton's gripe about the appeals process is a valid one. We aren't talking about 2-minute minors here; we're talking about significant losses of manpower for teams and money for players.
It would be interesting to see, through collective bargaining, if there might be a fail-safe to be put in place to ensure justice is ultimately served.