A Look at the NHL’s Pre-Season Suspensions

October 4, 2013

Uncategorized

By Mark Weir – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

Earlier this National Hockey League pre-season, NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan handed down a trio of suspensions which sparked some controversy amongst the league and its fans.The incidents which lead to the disciplinary actions taken by the league came from two separate incidents in games being played 3,500 kilometers apart in Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto, Ontario, and perhaps if they had occurred at different points in the season the decisions would not have warranted such scrutiny.

The players involved in each of the suspensions are: David Clarkson, a Toronto Maple Leafs forward who was suspended for 10 regular season games but is allowed to finish out the pre-season; Zack Kassian, a Vancouver Canuck forward, suspended for 5 regular season games, and the remainder of Vancouver’s pre-season; and Phil Kessel, the all-star forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs who was suspended for Toronto’s remaining 3 pre-season games.

There is really no controversy over Clarkson’s suspension.The case made by the NHL is quite clear.Clarkson left the Maple Leafs’ bench on an illegal line change in order to join an on ice altercation.The NHL has an entire section in its rules (Rule 70) pertaining to “Leaving the Bench.” According to Rule 70.10, “The first player to leave the players’ or penalty bench during an altercation or for the purpose of starting an altercation from either or both teams shall be suspended automatically without pay for the next ten (10) regular League and/or Play-off games of his team.”

There is no grey area when it comes to this rule.The NHL followed their rules to the letter on this case.

Why then were the other two suspensions from last week so disproportionate?

The suspension to Kassian was awarded as the result of an errant high stick which caught the mouth of Edmonton Oiler forward, Sam Gagner.The incident resulted in a broken jaw for Gagner, and a four minute double-minor penalty awarded to Kassian for his on ice actions.

Kessel’s incident, on the other hand, was far more deliberate.While lining up for a face-off midway through the third period, Kessel was challenged to a fight by Buffalo Sabres enforcer John Scott who at 6 foot 8 inches and 270 pounds is 8 inches and 70 pounds bigger than Kessel.Since Kessel is a super-star, and not a fighter, it was not too surprising to see his initial reaction, which was to slash his stick in order to keep Scott at bay until Kessel’s teammates arrived to back him up.It was the actions which followed which landed Kessel his suspension.After his initial slash of Scott, Kessel’s teammates came in and took the big man to the ground.It was at this point that Kessel deliberately took another slash at Scott’s ankle with what looks like a clear intent to injure, after which Kessel speared Scott with the blade of his stick while Scott was being detained by an official.  Kessel’s actions bought him a match penalty, and he was ejected from the game.

These incidents invite the question how did Brendan Shanahan and the NHL decide on the appropriate suspension time for the two offenders in question? Having occurred on the same night, these two incidents provide an excellent juxtaposition of two disciplinary decisions being brought down for two very different, but both serious scenarios.

In the case of Kassian, we have a severe injury, but without intent to injure.Kassian made an undisciplined play, and let his stick get away from him.But one cannot say with certainty that Kassian meant to hit Gagner in the face with his stick, or that he even intended to get his stick up that high.In the case of Kessel, we have no injury sustained on the part of Scott, but there is a quite clear intent to injure a player who not only has his back turned to the offender, but who, at the time, was pre-occupied fighting two other players.

The NHL seems to be disciplining players based on the result of their actions, and not the intent of their actions.The on-ice officials on the other hand seem to be doing the opposite.

Is the NHL protecting its superstars? Is it really only concerned with the injury sustained from a player’s misconduct? Or should intent be factored into the disciplinary decisions of the NHL?

There needs to be a more consistent method of disciplining players who have broken rules which could lead to injury.No one is saying that Shanahan has an easy job, and he’s not going to be able to please everyone with his decisions.  However, if he continues to hand out decisions like these, the controversies will never subside.

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