Few jobs in the NHL suck more than Brendan Shanahan‘s. As the guy in charge of player safety, Shanahan has presided over 26 suspensions so far this season. Shanahan began publishing videos to document each infraction and provide transparency to a process that had been considered arbitrary in previous years.
I didn’t pay too much attention to supplemental discipline until this week, when Alex Ovechkin earned a three-game suspension for charging Zbynek Michalek. Ovechkin’s was the 10th three-game suspension of the year. With a big enough sample for comparison and Shanahan’s explanation for each, we’re finally able to peer into the underlying logic– and fairness– behind these rulings.
Ideally, all illegal hits can be placed on a spectrum from insignificant and benign to profound and malicious. Many factors would determine each hit’s location on that spectrum: the logistical mechanics of the hit, the context of the game, the language of the rule that governs it, the history of the players involved, the on-ice ruling, and (maybe) any ensuing injury.
In a perfect world, the resultant discipline (either fine, suspension, or both) would correlate to the severity of the infraction; more serious violations yield longer suspensions and bigger fines.
Let’s look at similar hits and compare them and their punishments.
Alex Ovechkin launches himself into the air to hit Zbynek Michalek, who is not in a vulnerable position and has just passed the puck. Ovechkin does not target the head, but he does hit it. Ovechkin is not a repeat offender by the definition of the CBA, but has a 22-month-old boarding infraction and a 26-month-old kneeing infraction. Michalek does not appear injured and remains in the game.
In the suspension video, Brendan Shanahan says that once he went airborne, Ovechkin was responsible for any contact to Michalek’s head– even if that wasn’t the principle point of contact. That seems like a reasonable decision for accountability, and I won’t refute it.
Shanahan says that his decision took into consideration both of Alex Ovechkin’s fines and suspensions– even though they both are outside of the 18-month window that the CBA defines for “repeat offender” status. Shanahan also notes that both of those prior infractions were due to physicality. More on this later.
When I commented on the hit and the possibility disciple on the night of the hit, I wrote that Michalek was falling before the hit– leading to the contact with his head– and I underestimated the apparent deliberation behind Ovechkin launching himself into the hit. I was wrong. The angle that Shanahan uses in his video is illuminating. It certainly justifies some amount of discipline, and it raises other questions that we’re not really equipped to answer: what factors inform the decision for suspension and to what degree?
The best clues we have are the “key point” bullets that Shanahan delivers in his videos– an elemental deconstruction of each hit. If the system is truly fair, we should be able to reverse engineer each hit and suspension to discover a rubric for punishment. If we can’t divine their logic, then we have revealed the new discipline administration is just as arbitrary as its predecessor– and they’re just using cool videos and bullet points as a obfuscatory firewall.
Of the 10 three-game suspensions this season*, only two were similar to Ovechkin’s. Those hits were Mark Fistric charging on December 7 and Deryk Engelland‘s flying elbow on December 22.
Let’s look at each.
Fistric leaves his skates, launching himself to hit New York’s Nino Neiderreiter, who has just received a pass along the boards at center ice. Fistric targets and hits the head with a full-body check. Neiderreiter suffers a concussion and misses the rest of the game and beyond. No penalty is assessed. Fistric is not a repeat offender, but had been fined for on-ice violence 23 months earlier.
Neiderreiter missed five games due to his concussion.
Engelland approaches Chicago’s Marcus Kruger, who has the puck entering the Pittsburgh zone. Engelland delivers a check to the head and leaves his skates upon the hit. Engelland is not penalized for the check. Kruger plays some of the game’s remainder and misses the next game. Engelland has no history of supplemental discipline.
Kruger missed one game due to his concussion.
All three hits have factors in common that could explain the equal punishment. They each could have been legal hockey plays, until the violating players leave their skates or target their opponent’s head. No penalties were called on any of these hits. None of these players are considered repeat offenders by the CBA.
But there are stark differences as well. Ovechkin’s history of on-ice collision is explicitly mentioned as a factor in judgment. Fistric’s history of on-ice mayhem is mentioned but dismissed for not being germane.
Both Fistric and Engelland overtly target the heads of their opponents. The contact between Ovechkin and Michalek began as shoulder-to-shoulder. Again, the stated policy is that an airborne players is responsible for a hit to the head even if the head was not a target. But intent should not be assumed.
Finally, Fistric and Engelland cause concussions in their victims. 5 man-games were lost to Fistric’s hit; 1 to Engelland’s. No time was lost to the Ovechkin hit.
Perhaps Shanahan considered Kruger’s and Neiderreiter’s injuries as counterbalance to Ovechkin’s history– so he handed down the same sentence for all three. But that explanation isn’t credible, as Ovechkin’s history is beyond the window that the CBA allows for consideration. Unless Shanahan is ignoring the definition of repeat offender and making his judgments based on personality, which is what I assert he is doing.
I’d argue that the deliberation apparent in Fistric’s and Engelland’s hits was malicious and that the outcome of those hits was far greater than that of Ovechkin’s hit. Put another way– Fistric and Engelland targeted players’ heads and injured them; Alex Ovechkin targeted a player’s shoulder and did not injure him. Two were malicious; the other was reckless.
But they received the same penalty. Why?
Was Ovechkin suspended disproportionately because he is perceived — perhaps accurately– as being stubborn and ignorant to the danger of his play? Is the league fearful of him seriously injuring another player in the future, and are they using the suspension to modify his behavior? Is Ovechkin punished more aggressively because he is a star? Or (if you’re wearing a tin-foil hat) is Ovechkin persecuted because he is not North American?
Some of those questions are unfair, but they will all linger until personal interpretation is removed from the decision-making process for punishment.
Just as on-ice officials are given leeway to interpret the game and inject their own narrative, so too has Brendan Shanahan been allowed to punish players based on whim– rather than the letter of the law. And just as officials are routinely criticized for bias (“Typical Montreal”) and sometimes accused of corruption, so too will Brendan Shanahan until true transparency is granted.
That means a specific formula for punishment– open to the public. Five people different in five rooms can look at an incident, apply the formula, and reach the same result: Left skates + targeted head + concussion = 3 games. Left skates + targeted shoulder, hit head + history of hits = 3 games. Whatever.
But that’s not going to happen. And until then, bromides like “boys will be boys” and “let the boys play” will mask the biases that hockey authorities are not willing or able to confront.
Jan 16: Dane Byers, Hit to the Head, 3 Games
Jan 9: Jean-Francois Jacques, Elbowing, 3 Games
Jan 1: Ian Cole, Elbowing, 3 Games
Nov 11: Max Pacioretty, Hit to the Head, 3 Games
Nov 25: Andre Deveaux, Hit to the Head, 3 Games
Nov 16: Chris Stewart, Hit From Behind, 3 Games
Additional research by Ian Oland.
* We have excluded preseason suspensions from our analysis because losing a preseason game is considered less punitive than missing a regular-season game.
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