Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Did the NHL Contribute to the Pens/Islanders Brawl?

Much has been written about the Slap Shotesque brawl between the Islanders and the Penguins, with passionate viewpoints voiced about the the game, the surrounding events, and the subsequent fallout from the suspensions (or lack of suspensions if you're an Islanders fan). The pot was further stirred by the comments made by Mario Lemieux regarding his perception of the thuggishness, only to have heated rejoinder from other parts of the hockey world because Super Mario employs arguably the dirtiest player in the NHL in Matt Cooke.

This event will continue to play itself out in the court of public opinion, while the NHL has absolved itself of further involvement with the suspensions and fines handed down to the Islanders.

Or has it?

Has the NHL, in its inconsistent and sometimes head scratching pattern of justice, or lack thereof, created an environment where players and the coaches that put them on the ice feel they need revenge. Has Colin Campbell's "wheel of justice" (stick tap to Greg Wyshynski at the great Puck Daddy blog for this term) destroyed any relationship to cause and effect between dangerous behavior on the ice and subsequent punishment?

In my mind, they are questions that are worth asking.

There exists in the game today a gray area that is broad and indeterminate regarding discipline for questionable hits and actions on the ice. What results in a suspension for one player may not warrant even a second look by the League office for another player. A spin of the "wheel of justice". And therein lies part of the problem.

The inconsistent application of "justice" or discipline by the League office has created an environment of uncertainty for the players on the ice. What is allowed in the way of hits in the open ice or along the boards varies greatly. I have seen players speared in the face (Joel Ward against the Canucks) without a word said by the League office. I have also seen players suspended for less. All of us have seen the uneven application of discipline by Colin Campbell and the League. The boundaries of what is acceptable and punishment for what is deemed unacceptable is a moving target.

The game is played at a high pace. Decisions on the ice are made in a split second. When players have no clear boundaries, the doors are opened for questionable hits and ugly incidents that lead to injury and players knocked out of the game.

I have a son that is playing Pee Wee hockey. At the start of the season, team meetings were held and the players were told that fighting and dangerous stick work would result in their removal from the league. Guess what? Forty games have been played in his league without a single fight or unnecessary use of the stick by a player.Yes, this is Pee Wee hockey, but it is hockey and the boundaries were clearly defined for the players.

Don't get me wrong. I love a clean hit that separates a player from the puck. I think fighting has a place in the game. I love the physical nature of hockey.

In the NHL, as in my son's Pee Wee league, there has to be clearly defined boundaries for the play on the ice. By defining clearly what is acceptable play, the gray areas are greatly reduced if not eliminated. By doing this, players know what will happen if they cross the line and the punishment they will receive if they do so. This is the basis for establishing a level of respect that is firm and consistent from game to game.

It is incumbent on the NHL to establish clearly defined boundaries of acceptable play and consistent levels of punishment for crossing those boundaries. Consistency is critical. As it stands, the appearance of a haphazard enforcement of the rules and inconsistent punishment not only damages the credibility of the League but puts players in the unenviable position of having to interpret those rules in a nanosecond while on the ice.

This is a formula for disaster.

The League cannot afford the inconsistency in establishing and enforcing the rules of play, nor can they be inconsistent in meting out punishment for play that crosses the line. Inconsistency fosters the appearance of favoritism and, worse yet, creates an environment of uncertainty for the players on the ice. The fan's perception of fairness is compromised by an appearance of inconsistency.

In no way am I absolving the Islander players that were involved in egregious behavior that crossed the line in their games against the Penguins. They are responsible for their actions and deserve the punishment they received. They acted the way they did because they felt "disrespected" by the Penguins in an earlier contest. Let your play on the ice, not cheap shot assaults, be your response for being "disrespected".

Nevertheless, the Islanders felt a need to go after the Penguins, to exact a measure of revenge.

The question is has the League created an environment that promoted this kind of behavior?

It is a question worth asking.

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