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.

Jan 22: Alex Ovechkin, Charging, 3 Games

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 summary:

  • Began as a legal hockey play
  • Player left his feet
  • Contact to the head, unintentional
  • No call on the play
  • No injury on the play
  • Not a repeat offender, but has a history of on-ice hits

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.

Dec 7: Mark Fistric, Charging, 3 Games

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.

In summary:

  • Began as a legal hockey play
  • Player left his feet
  • Targeted the head
  • No call on the play
  • Concussion on the play
  • Not a repeat offender, but has a history of on-ice mayhem

Neiderreiter missed five games due to his concussion.

Dec 22: Deryk Engelland, Elbowing, 3 Games

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.

In summary:

  • Began as a legal hockey play
  • Player leaves his feet upon impact
  • Targeted the head
  • No call on the play
  • Concussion on the play
  • Not a repeat offender, clean record

Kruger missed one game due to his concussion.

Comparison

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.

Other Three-Game Suspensions

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.

  • http://twitter.com/VeggieTart Danielle

    One more thing:  Not only was Michalek NOT injured on the play, he decided to go after Matt Hendricks within minutes of Ovie hitting him and DID target the head and neck area for which he received…no fine nor suspension.

  • Peter

    Yeah. Maybe that’d be worth comparing in another post?

  • ghostibator

    Shanny lost any credibility on this one when he cited OV’s past (as this, by the NHL’s very own definition should not even be a factor),  and I felt that after he didn’t punish Lucic for the Miller hit, he had already veered from his bogus claim of ‘transparency’; this is a bit of a tangent, but in my mind, a goaltender is different than a player, they aren’t as fast, aren’t as big or strong, and are much more vulnerable when they play the puck (the difference arises from their equipment and puck-playing techniques). Lucic clearly put the puck too far ahead of him, and then targeted Miller (partially leaving his feet on impact).
    - penalty on the play
    - no concussion to Miller, but neck issues

    not a Buff fan, just pointing out how Shannahan has already screwed up (AND Michalek deserved his own suspension later in the game)

  • A-town down

    I’m no english professor, but isn’t this a failure of consistency? 
    It would appear that the entire process of the suspension was readily transparent, since this article harps on all the inconsistencies.

  • Peter

    No. I’m saying that Shanahan isn’t discussing the reasons that led to giving Ovechkin a 3-game suspension and I don’t know what those reasons are. It’s transparency. 

    Consistency would imply he’s using a random number generator or has no discernible or defendable reasons for the punishment. I think he does.

  • A-town down

    I disagree then. It seems that Shanny is vastly inconsistent with his suspensions since: 
    1) Ovi is not a repeat offender (and in addition, I believe there should be a cut off of 2 seasons for offenses)
    2) hit to the head was aimed at the shoulder, mickalek ducked ( no where near malicious intent)
    3) no injury, no penalty.

    By his standards alone, a fine would have been administered, or at most one game suspension.

    Every night, in every game, a check inadvertently hits the head. Should we just toss suspensions out all willy-nilly? 

    And let’s not forget to mention the deliberate elbow to Hendricks.

    It’s obvious he wanted to make an example of an all-star, and they were just waiting for the chance.

  • Peter

    I’m not exactly sure how to address your points. 

    I agree about the intepretation of repeat offender. A FanPost on Japers Rink has an exhaustive discussion of that: http://www.japersrink.com/2012/1/25/2732759/the-nhl-violated-the-cba-with-the-ovechkin-suspension

    I think saying Ovi is responsible for hitting the head because he was in the air. That’s a point Shanahan has made a few times now, and I accept it completely. So any hit where the head wasn’t targeted but hit because a player is airborne is reckless.

    Your conclusion about making an example of an all-star is compelling, but the central point of my argument is that it’s NOT obvious. We don’t know why this different hits got the same punishment, and they won’t tell us. We can judge people by their actions, but guessing at their intent is a fool’s game. 

  • iwearstripes

    First – I’m not sure how Shanny’s establishing offenses older than 18 Months has, thus far, avoided scrutiny.  It think this excerpt from Appendix 8 of the CBA makes it pretty clear the application of the 18 month rule is not limited to financial penalties:

    “(d) status as a “first” or “repeat” offender shall be re-determined
    every eighteen (18) months. For example, where a Player is suspended for
    the first time, he is a repeat offender if he is suspended again within
    eighteen (18) months of the first incident. If he is not suspended a
    second time within this eighteen (18) month period, he will no longer be
    treated as a repeat offender for disciplinary purposes”

    How NHLPA hasn’t taken this issue up with the league is beyond me.  Moreover, I can’t fathom how the mainstream hockey media has overlooked this.

    Second – Given the nature of the game, I don’t think a specific formula that anyone can apply is a reasonable expectation.  There are so many differences between two plays that can be subtle, yet important.  I would like to see a committee of 3 people, one assigned by the NHL, one by the NHLPA, and maybe a retired on-ice official, have a GoToMeeting, and discuss their interpretation of the play, and reach a conclusion on the length of the suspension.  After they’ve reached their conclusion, they would then make the meeting (audio and video) available to the public for review.  That would give the players, media, and fans much more insight into the thought process they go through to arrive at a decision. 

  • Peter

    yeah but what do you know about hockey anyway

  • Anonymous

    I know Matt Cooke is the NHL’s Sterling Marlin.

  • Peter

    Haha okay but if that means Savard is Earnhardt, Sr., I’m never speaking to you again.

  • Anonymous

    Despite his best efforts, Cooke hasn’t actually killed anyone yet.  So clearly the relative greatness of Dale Sr. and Savard isn’t the only flaw in the analogy. 

  • Caps_Chick

    Do you think it might be helpful to have “breakdown” videos for all plays
    brought under review, including those where no punishment is given?

  • Peter

    absolutely

  • Yk

    NHLPA do not act to this violations maybe because of self-interest.  Why they want to forfeit 150K+$ that going to their account? Essentially, it is Ovi and Caps against Shanahan and NHL, that might very satisfactorily for other teams and players. Something like, enemy of my enemy is my ally/friend. It is lose lose situation for Ovi. But, at the end NHL seems not winning also, especially if TV ratings of ASG would be very low.

  • Rhino40

    well done.  FREE OVIE!