Thursday, January 28, 2010

Head shot solution

I was listening to a radio show when one of the commentators said that hockey is pretty much the same as it used to be and the focus on all the head shots is simply because so many more games at all levels are televised and there are so many more media outlets to talk about and debate the hits, than in years past. Despite that being a ridiculously long run on sentence, I can’t disagree more with the contention.

While it is true there is far more attention paid because there is far more coverage and access through hi-lite shows and youtube, the number and type of hits is infinitely greater than it used to be.

Yes there have always been head shots and dangerous plays in the game but the number is far higher now for a number of reasons. There are the obvious ones. The average size and speed of the players is greater. New equipment causes as much damage as it protects. The wide range of the size of players. There was a time when very few small players got to the highest levels and very few of the biggest players made it because they were too slow and uncoordinated. Now at the NHL and CHL levels we have players who range from 5’6” and 160lbs to 6’9” and 265lbs.

The biggest single difference is attitude and respect. Players do not have the same respect level for each other as they used to have. There is no shame now in being thought of as a dirty or dangerous player. Players now do not contemplate the down side of being thought of by their peers as a player without honor.

The instigator rule also plays a part in all of this. The number of head shots and the supplementary discipline which results from those hits shows us quite clearly that players have not been penalized sufficiently to change their behavior towards each other. Since supplementary discipline is having next to no affect it conjures up the old argument about the instigator rule. While certainly not perfect and those plays did occur before the instigator rule, the frequency was much lower. Players thought about the on ice repercussions of their actions. If you leveled one of those hits, you knew someone would be visiting you on the ice to force you to physically answer for your behavior. That fear had a greater impact on behavior than supplementary discipline has so far.

We will never see the instigator rule rescinded so supplementary discipline must be amped up to change on ice behavior. The NHLPA must also institute some sort of peer based supplementary discipline. A player’s greatest threat to his career is from another player. A player based disciplinary board is completely germane here since over 70% of NHL players believe it is a front burner issue in the NHL. If the players want a solution they have to be a part of it.

See you at the rink.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Speak no Evil

Vancouver Cannuck Alex Burrows says referee Stephane Auger told him he was going to settle a score based on disrespect and did.

Let’s be real here. Referees are people too. There are some players they like and some they don’t. Some players in this league get more leniency than others all the time based on their personality, reputation, resume and other factors. If any of the allegations of Burrows are true, the only thing Auger did wrong was say the words out loud. It absolutely goes on all the time and everyone knows it.

This controversy has many tentacles. Firstly, some players have complained to the league in the past about referees swearing at them on the ice. That is a ridiculous double standard. Watch the lips of the people on the ice during any NHL game. You can clearly see that players use foul language towards, at and about officials all the time. Players can’t continually swear at officials and then be offended when officials use foul language when communicating with them.

Officials are also in an impossible situation. There is one easy way to end all of this from happening. Under NHL rules an official is not obliged to speak with any player or coach. If he chooses to, only captains or designated alternates are supposed to be allowed to speak to the officials and only if invited to have a conversation by the official. If you watch hockey you know that all players and all coaches are continuously speaking or trying to speak to the officials. Every one of them could be penalized if the ref chose to.

Referees however can’t do that. If a player can’t communicate with an official he complains to his coach. If the coach can’t communicate with the ref he complains to his GM. The GM then calls the league and complains that officials wont communicate and the officials are then instructed to have more communication despite the fact they are supposed to have the individual power to either accept on ice communication or not.

Do referees make calls in games based on some personal bias towards some individuals or teams? Absolutely they do. All you have to do is to go through the game sheets to map the trends. These things are discussed privately with the NHL all the time. Is there a way to fix it? No. Not as long as you have human beings calling the games. Just like teachers at school, some students are treated differently for a variety of reasons. It might not be right, but it is reality.

If Alex Burrows wanted the relationship fixed with Stephane Auger he should have done it quietly and privately. If Auger wanted to keep this from becoming public he should have just nodded to Burrows and skated away.

Why was Burrows disciplined by the league and not Auger? Because Burrows broke the publicity code by talking to the media about it and any discipline for Auger would have created at least the impression there may be credibility issues in his calling of games as it relates to fairness and unbiased neutrality.

At the end of the day Burrows broke the un-spoken code about speaking. That is the greater sin in the NHL, even if he was completely correct in everything he said.

See you at the rink.