(Ed. Note: Chris Botta is a former VP of Communications for the New York Islanders and the editor of the blog NYI Point Blank. In this exclusive story, he chronicles the journey of former Islander Chris Simon through the NHL's supplemental discipline process during 2007.)
"What was the point"?
This is what Chris Simon said to me twice within a nine-month period, spanning two NHL seasons, in 2007. The first time was after a hearing with NHL VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell in Toronto, two days after Simon slashed New York Rangers wing Ryan Hollweg(notes) just below his neck. The second was after a hearing with Campbell in New York, two days after deliberately stomping on the leg (video) of Pittsburgh's Jarkko Ruutu(notes).
As the VP of Communications for the Islanders at the time, I was part of a small group that accompanied Simon to his meetings with the League's head of supplemental discipline.
Trevor Gillies(notes) may feel the same way Simon did when he meets with Campbell and his staff in Toronto today. Typically, when a player is called to a hearing, as the Islanders enforcer was after his check on Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck(notes) on Wednesday, he is facing a minimum five-game suspension.
Gillies won't receive the landmark 25- and 30-game sentences Simon was hit with, but his chances of talking Campbell and his committee into leniency would appear to be slim.
Most players feel that the penalty the League had in mind entering the hearing is what the guilty were eventually given. This is what made Simon wonder, "What was the point"?
I believe there is a valuable one. Criticize the league for its judgments -- let's face it, no one is going to be happy with whatever Gillies gets, just as there were plenty of gripes (and a Mario Lemieux missive) after the Ferocious Friday yard sale between the Islanders and Penguins. But you cannot fault the NHL's process of dealing with these serious matters, men to man.
The trip to Toronto with Simon had some intrigue.
Even in the pre-Twitter days of March 2007, Simon's two-handed swing at Hollweg (in retaliation for being checked from behind) dominated hockey's news cycle.
To stay away from the press in Toronto, every step was choreographed the day before. Even our town car driver used a pseudonym on his welcome placard at the airport. We entered back doors at our two office stops.
What I remember about our four hours in Toronto is how downright pleasant everything was for what, you know, amounted to a perp walk.
The staff at our first visit, the National Hockey League Players' Association, could not have made Simon feel more welcomed and protected. Stu Grimson was there at the time. Here was "The Grim Reaper," a frequent combatant of Simon's during their playing days, and now he was telling Simon that he had his back. The lawyers and executives provided a plan for Simon - when he should speak, what he should say, what he shouldn't say. Although Simon knew he was in for a suspension, he came out of the PA meeting confident and feeling a bit better about his chances.
The professionalism and courtesy continued at the NHL offices. Campbell and his colleagues warmly shook everyone's hands and made casual chit-chat before bringing Simon, Islanders general manager Garth Snow and the union executives into a conference room.
But here was the problem for Simon and every other player to ever enter that room, and the problem confronting Gillies today: There is a video screen in the "court."
No matter how articulate a player may be in describing what he was thinking when he made the hit in question, the film will tell most of the story. And you better believe the judges have already watched the footage dozens of times, from every possible angle. It's worth noting that the best-connected insiders in the business consistently speculated on Thursday that Gillies will get suspended for approximately five games.
If Gillies has been called to defend himself in Toronto today, what can he say? The League's hockey operations staff has already come to an agreement on what they are seeing on the tape. Is Gillies, like Simon and dozens before him, going to convince Campbell that his eyes deceive him? Will it make a difference if Gillies, who just returned from a nine-game suspension for his hit on Eric Tangradi(notes) on Feb. 11, sincerely makes the case that there was no intent to injure Clutterbuck?
Does it matter that Gillies has a family he dotes on, and that he played over a decade in the minors before catching his first real break with the Islanders at 31 years old?
No, it won't. What Gillies is likely to learn, as Simon did, is that these hearings are not opportunities to plead for a lighter sentence. They set the stage for what happens when you get called for your next match penalty and commentators are ratcheting up their cases for you to be kicked out of the League.
After we returned to New York from Toronto, Simon received a 25-game suspension. The day after Simon participated in a hearing at the League office in Manhattan for the incident with Ruutu, the NHL announced a 30-game suspension.
(Truth be told, the town car had barely reached Nassau County an hour after Simon testified when I was already getting text messages that MSG Network and TSN had the details on the record-breaking punishment).
"I told you so," said Simon, whose NHL career was essentially over after a brief stop in Minnesota.
"They already knew what they were going to give me. Waste of everyone's time."
I'll admit to not having the heart or courage to tell Big Si that I disagreed.
For Trevor Gillies, facing nowhere near the historic suspensions Simon received -- yet -- what is the point of today's hearing?
The same as when he met Campbell in a Buffalo hotel on Feb. 12, the day after he hit Tangradi. If there's a third time, the League cannot say it didn't warn him face-to-face.
POSTSCRIPT: I usually have little interest in debating the legality of hits or the quality of people delivering them. If a player is on your team, you like and defend him. If he plays for the other guys, you detest him. This is sports, as it should be.
For anyone to say, from a writer's or a broadcast studio desk, who does and doesn't belong in the League, this is taking it too far. Who is anyone to judge whether Matt Cooke(notes) or Trevor Gillies or any other player is a quality person based on the role he plays in a hockey game?
See the picture above? It's Chris Simon, after warm-ups, having the grace 15 minutes before opening faceoff to make a few kids' days. It was the birthday party for my twin sons, Luke and Cole.
As you may be able to tell by the timestamp, the night was Dec. 15, 2007. About 90 minutes later, this kind man with a family of his own stomped on the right leg of Jarkko Ruutu.