Last week, Washington forward Tom Wilson was suspended seven games, which was a fair punishment for a hit that injured Boston defender Brandon Carlo. Or, at least, it seemed fair until we learned the NHL Department of Player Safety’s justification.
“We agree that Wilson could deliver a hit on Carlo that does not result in supplemental discipline,” DoPS said. “We acknowledge [Washington’s] assertion that it is common for NHL players to legally deliver hits on unsuspecting or vulnerable opponents. While there are aspects of this hit that may skirt the line between suspendable and not-suspendable, it is the totality of the circumstances that cause this play to merit supplemental discipline.”
“Totality of circumstances” is a trap. It’s a weasel phrase that allows DoPS not to show their work. It turns discipline into a black box that only the Department of Player Safety can see through. You can agree with their conclusion or not, but you cannot understand how they got there.
Many NHL players would have made that same hit on Carlo, who had possession and was definitely eligible to be hit in that moment. Wilson hit hard and high, but he was square to Carlo, and he appeared to coast before the hit. So it’s a hidden confluence of factors known only after the fact (e.g. Carlo’s injury) and mediated entirely through DoPS (e.g. Wilson’s reputation) that ultimately determines suspension.
In 1964 the Supreme Court heard a case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, about a French film that the state of Ohio thought was too obscene to be screened. Justice Potter Stewart described his test for obscenity:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hardcore pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
This I-know-it-when-I-see-it test is the same one the NHL uses to mete out supplemental discipline. It gives DoPS officers tremendous power only because the NHL rulebook is plainly insufficient about head contact.
Wilson did not receive and did not deserve the benefit of the doubt last week, but NHL players deserve good-faith protection. If the goal of the Department of Player Safety is to actually protect the safety of players, they should ask for a change to the NHL rulebook: Penalize all hits to the head.
It would be really easy. Here’s the change:
Rule 48 — Illegal Check to the Head
A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head
where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidableis not permitted.
That’s it. Seventeen words removed. Right now those seventeen words do all kinds of insidious work, allowing for opacity and subjectivity. They turn officials into metaphysicians (“What does it mean for contact to be unavoidable? What is the main point of anything?”) and they turn DoPS into an operation for PR flak, responding to outrage rather than advocating for safety.
If the NHL makes every hit to the head a penalty, then finally there would be clear expectations for players. They would know ahead of time the cost of a hit, and they could adjust appropriately. A rule change would be constant and predictable where supplemental discipline is neither, and that’s the only way the league can change behavior to reduce injury.
This would not be a perfect cure. Officials would still miss calls, and players would still get hurt, but there would be fewer of both. Every player on the ice would become just a little bit more accountable for the safety of every other player on the ice.
And this would not be a radical change. Ken Dryden has asked for it for years. This would just extend to checks the same principle that currently applies to high-sticking. If you hit another player’s head, you’re going to the box. No gray area.
The officials could still choose what’s a two-minute minor or a five-minute major, and DoPS could still chime in on special cases, but mostly they can work to socialize the new rule 48 so that officials and players and media and fans all share the same understanding.
Until that happens, we should probably stop calling them the Department of Player Safety. That’s not what they do.
Headline illustration: Peter Hassett (Photos: Boston University, Screenshots: Sportsnet)
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