When the NHL’s Department of Player Safety hands down a ruling, it almost always makes somebody mad. Fanbases whose players are suspended are rarely convinced that their guy did anything wrong; or if he did, that plenty of similar plays don’t go uncalled. Fans of the injured party do not like the idea that the shameless headhunter on the other side got off easy. It’s not a job where pleasing everyone is likely, or even possible.
Most complaints about DOPS take for granted something about its mission: that it’s supposed to be a fair arbiter of events on the ice that punishes dangerous plays and, hopefully, discourages players from breaking the rules in future. It’s supposed to be at least trying to be consistent and to treat like plays in like fashion. I haven’t heard too many people say it executes this mission successfully, especially in recent years, but it’s assumed that’s the basic idea.
To be clear here: it’s not.
The NHL is an entertainment product and the DOPS is one of its public relations arms. What it does, it does because the league believes it’s best for its product; what it refrains from doing, it avoids because it believes it’s bad for the product. The league is responsive first and foremost to profit incentives, and to embarrassment, which is its own perception of threats to its revenues. That is by far its overriding motivation.
This might sound like cheap cynicism, or bitterness from a fan whose team has recently gotten a bad rap from DOPS. Maybe so; I can’t say this is an original thought or one I’m having for the first time, but it’s topical because of another, to be blunt, shitty ruling from DOPS. Still, I think the context will apply long after the Taylor Hall sucker punch is forgotten, because it’s applied for a long time up to now.
Many things about the NHL’s handling of supplementary discipline and its overall attitude make more sense if you notice a few basic rules.
- The NHL sees toughness and a certain level of violence as a key selling point.
- The overriding rule is not to embarrass the league.
- How the league is perceived must be carefully managed; decisions beyond that can be fairly arbitrary.
Let’s lay these out, like a Tom Wilson elbow that goes mysteriously uncalled.
The Violence Is Not A Bug, It’s A Feature
This is obvious. The league hasn’t banned fighting beyond the old five-minute major, though rates of fighting have declined sharply as teams have deemed pure enforcer types to be unworthy of their cost. The league hasn’t banned head hits altogether, though it could do so. The league’s chosen head of the Department of Player Safety is George Parros, who is a partner in a clothing brand called Violent Gentlemen which explicitly valorizes violence in hockey and in MMA, as per its own mission statement. Parros was famously a brawler and, according to HockeyFights.com, he fought 283 times in his career.
To be clear, I don’t think Parros is stupid by any means (he has an economics degree from Princeton, and I don’t think they give those away based on the quality of your mustache.) I do think he embraces a certain kind of play. Hockey is a physical sport, after all, and the hitting absolutely is part of the appeal to plenty of fans. The vision the league has for its sport involves physicality, and that means certain infractions get winked at and other ones get the hammer brought down.
Don’t Embarrass Us
You get a certain amount of leeway as a star player in the NHL. You can eventually run through it as someone with a bad reputation (see Brad Marchand, Tom Wilson, and Nazem Kadri) but you usually get a bit more benefit of the doubt; it’s players like Radko Gudas and Alex Burrows who get the biggest numbers, compared to lesser lights.
So what about Auston Matthews? Matthews, who is by any measure a star, got two games for hitting Rasmus Dahlin with a high, retaliatory stick shove. There’s a good argument that play should be suspendable (hitting people in the head with sticks is bad); there is also a good argument that shoving of that nature happens in plenty of scrums without drawing a suspension. But Matthews was a star hitting another star in a play that was immediately remarked on, in the course of one of the NHL’s much-touted outdoor games, which attracts more attention. The league doesn’t like that. It’s hard to prove, but I don’t think Auston Matthews, previously a finalist for a Lady Byng, gets two games if the shove happens playing in Columbus on a Tuesday night.
Okay, maybe that’s just the homer in me talking. To take another example, reported by The Athletic’s Rick Carpinello: George Parros apparently didn’t so much as want to fine Washington forward Tom Wilson for braining Boston’s Brandon Carlo last year (violence is part of the game); but Gary Bettman intervened and ordered a suspension based on the poor optics (don’t embarrass us). Even putting aside his official role as the court of appeal to DOPS, I doubt this is the first time Bettman’s intervened in that way.
Let’s zoom out a little: the league’s referees have a natural tendency to “balance” calls.
If you get a certain number of calls, it’s both common knowledge and demonstrable fact that the next call is more likely to go against you. At least in theory, the next call should be equally likely to go in either direction, or more likely to go to the team that takes more penalties. It’s not, and we all know why: because strings of calls one way are perceived as unfair, and that might be embarrassing. Tim Peel was pushed to an early retirement for acknowledging a makeup call on tape, despite it being apparent most of the league does it.
It’s not just data that’s telling us the league is very invested in its perception, though: it’s the league itself. Criticisms of referees by coaches are met with fines; the coaches, without the protection of a CBA, pay more than the players do for the infractions they’re complaining about. When the New York Rangers issued a letter criticizing the league for yet another Tom Wilson incident, the league suspended them $250,000, enough money to at least get the attention of even a very wealthy franchise. Other leagues do this as well, and of course have similar incentives to the NHL; yet the NHL has even less transparency than the NBA about its officiating, where missed calls in the last two minutes are reported and a certain amount of ref criticism is accepted as part of the game. The NHL would, I think, rather be in one of the predicaments from a Saw movie.
It’s worth noting, as the league’s referees take more heat lately, that they’ve deployed Wes McCauley for a Reddit AMA tomorrow afternoon. Will there be any actual changes to the refereeing? I doubt it. But perception matters.
I do think openness is good, in its own right, and the league hasn’t had much of it traditionally. It’s not too hard to remember what a revolution it was just for the league to explain its suspensions on video, and what a lauded step that was. For a massive, public-facing organization to explain decisions it made with impacts adding up to millions.
The league does not like being embarrassed, and can respond quite heavily to players it perceives as doing so. If that risk is minimized, though...eh.
Most hits the league chooses to suspend, excepting the most egregious, echo other hits it chose not to, or suspended differently. This gets a response from angry hardcore fans on Twitter, who will point out the inconsistency with footage, but this doesn’t really matter; anyone who cares enough to dig into game tape for comparable hits is probably going to keep watching even if the league openly issues suspensions based on dice rolls. Perfect consistency, of course, would be impossible and unreasonable to expect; but the league is not particularly close to that high standard. A question like “how much do you get for a sucker punch in response to a hit you disliked” doesn’t have a firm answer; Hall got a minor and a fine, while Larkin got a match penalty and a further one-game suspension. It’s tempting to read in team situation (Hall’s team is in a closely competitive playoff race, Larkin’s wasn’t likely to be) or more PR (a suspension to Hall would imply the refs missed something initially), but it may just be arbitrariness. DOPS has plenty.
Ultimately, DOPS is a group of mostly ex-players and referees trying to protect the profitability of its product based on perception from outside and nudges from above. It isn’t all that professional and it isn’t all that consistent, and without being biased against any particular team it nonetheless seems capricious in many of its decisions. A long look at the department comes to a simple conclusion: it’s people the league knows, preserving what the league wants, in a way the league can get away with. In those circumstances, anyone waiting for judicious consistency is going to be waiting a very long time.