The National Hockey League announced today that Dallas Stars' forward Antoine Roussel has been suspended for two games for his actions in a game against the Boston Bruins. What they also, in effect, announced is that the NHL's entire system for discipline is still a broken and inadequate entity.
Here is the "play" that got Roussel suspended.
To compare, John Moore received five games for this hit on Erik Haula earlier in the season. It was a hit to the head for sure, and Moore deserved a suspension. But it's bizarre to look at these two incidents and understand how the NHL could come to those conclusions. Moore's hit was definitely a hit to the head and he deserved a suspension. That being said, it was clear that there was no intent. A player was skating in with the puck, he was trying to separate him from that puck, and he got his arms too high. Moore was reckless, but his intentions were kosher.
Compare that to what Roussel did. It's awful and malicious in so many ways. It was premeditated. It was completely away from the puck. And, most importantly it was a blatant attempt to injure that put McQuaid at serious risk. Rangers fans, of all people, should know by now that throat injuries are serious business. And anyone else with an IQ above the Mendoza Line would know that crosschecking a guy in the throat/head area could do significant trauma in any number of ways. It's reminiscent of Chris Simon's disgraceful cheap shot on Ryan Hollweg.
And yet Moore received more than double the suspension. Yes, Moore had a bit of a track record, while this was Roussel's first suspension (though he was fined earlier in the season). But first-time murderers (usually) still serve more time than repeat offenders in significantly lesser crimes.
These suspensions are inherently subjective, and nobody is perfect. So we could say that there were other components that factored in, or that it's just a misstep as there would be in any disciplinary system. To ask the NHL to come up with a method for appropriating suspensions that will satisfy everyone each time would be naive and ridiculous.
There's a bigger problem polluting the disciplinary waters, though. It doesn't really work. Look at the list of players who have been suspended or fined this season and you'll see a lot of repeat offenders, or players at which you'd roll your eyes and say, "gee what a surprise." Recidivism rates in U.S. prisons is somewhere in the range of 70-to-80 percent, and there seems to be a similar theme within the NHL's own disciplinary program; a large number of players who get suspended for these acts continue to repeat them.
Reality is that, short of a hockey death penalty, if you will, the details of suspension length probably don't even matter. That Hollweg incident was Simon's seventh suspension of his NHL career; he received 25 games for it and nearly a criminal charge. Did Simon get the message? Apparently not, because 26 games into his return from the suspension Simon repeatedly stomped on Jarkko Ruutu's foot with his skate blade.
How many suspensions - and how many games - will it take for a player to finally stop with the violence? In most cases, probably never. Dan Carcillo, fresh off the ninth suspension in his NHL career, was recently asked if he was going to alter his style of play in light of the discipline.
Will the suspension alter the way #Blackhawks F Daniel Carcillo plays? "No. It hasn’t yet. It’s not going to."— Mark Potash (@MarkPotash) February 3, 2015
And that's exactly the problem with the NHL's disciplinary system. Dan Carcillo maybe isn't the sharpest crayon in the pack, but he's not completely stupid, either. Players like Carcillo know exactly why they're in the NHL; or, in cases like Roussel, why Dallas would hand him a four-year contract. It's that physical presence. More specifically, that "edge" and ability to "stir things up" and "wreak havoc." Carcillo, and similar players know very well that the concept is the only thing allowing them to make bank in the NHL instead of riding coach busses in the minors.
It's a business cost for these guys - Carcillo, Zac Rinaldo, John Scott, etc. In the same way that oil companies will accept a couple of environmentally-induced fines for the sake of greater profits in the long run, these players are going to consciously go all-out with the antics, and if they pick up a couple of suspensions in the process then so be it; it's a much better option than neutering themselves of the only thing keeping them in the NHL.
And it's the same thing for the teams, too. Chicago and Philadelphia aren't caught by surprise when Carcillo and Rinaldo get suspended. They know very well that an incident could come up at some point in the season. From their point of view, the benefits outweigh the consequences. They want some crazy on the roster and they'll take the light baggage that comes with it.
Thus, NHL Player Safety is tasked with an awfully difficult job; to punish the unpunishable. To rehabilitate those for whom it would be counter-productive to be rehabilitated. If the eighth suspension of a player's career doesn't reform him and doesn't prevent him from being employed, then the system itself is broken.
Instead, let's look at one of the few players who has tangibly reformed; Matt Cooke. No, he's not going to win a Lady Byng anytime soon, but he's not actively ruining careers like he was at one point. What changed? Mario Lemieux, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was caught with his pants down. After this circus occurred at Nassau Coliseum, and Eric Tangradi was concussed, Mario Lemieux released a pointed, vehement statement about how the NHL needs to prevent that kind of stuff:
"Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be, but what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.
"The N.H.L. had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.
"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it."
One month later, Matt Cooke concussed Ryan McDonagh with a flying elbow on national TV. With that latest incident, one of many for Cooke, Lemieux was forced with putting his money where his mouth was or risk looking like the world's biggest hypocrite. Thus, the Penguins released a public statement that transparently criticized Matt Cooke's actions, and reportedly told him that he had to change his ways immediately if he wanted to remain on the team.
Cooke has not been suspended in the regular season since.
There's your road to cleaning up the NHL. As long as teams continue to hand millions of dollars over to agitators, then close their eyes and cover their ears when those players cross the line, then those players are never going to stop doing what they perceive as their job. It won't matter matter how many stern talking-to's they receive from Patrick Burke or Stephane Quintal. It's negligible whether a suspension is three games or six. But a harsh, "cut it out or you're off the team," from his GM? That's a different story.
It's on the teams - coaches, GMs, and owners - to police this themselves. When Zac Rinaldo cheap shots someone, he receives the punishment. And yet, Head Coach Craig Berube and GM Ron Hextall are culpable themselves as accomplices; Berube for continuing to put him in the lineup every night, and Hextall for rewarding such behavior with a contract extension and pay raise. They're enabling those guys to run wild and injure innocent bystanders along the way but receive no punishment themselves beyond the minor headache of releasing manufactured statements to the media. The Lemieux/Cooke incident showed unequivocally that, when forced to, teams will hold their own players accountable, and even the worst offenders will change quickly. If the NHL started dishing out fines to teams who reach a certain suspension threshold and/or threatened them with salary cap and draft pick sanctions, then I imagine teams would no longer tolerate such behavior. Of course, that's something that would have to be negotiated into the CBA, and I'm sure many owners and GMs would object to such an idea. But the NHL, in some way, surely has to at least try to find other means of eradicating these violent, dangerous acts from the game.
Because the current method so visibly does not work.