Crooked Colin Campbell?

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New analysis of emails suggests that NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell repeatedly complained about calls made against his son, Gregory Campbell, and displayed bias in dealing with Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard, who he had coached while the latter played for the New York Rangers.

The emails, which were made public on the Canadian Legal Information Institute, were initially released as evidence in former NHL referee Dean Warren’s wrongful dismissal suit.  The emails are redacted in part, but enough information remained for Toronto-based lawyer Tyler Dellow to do some basic detective work on his website, mc79hockey.com (Dellow’s site is currently down, a cached version can be found here).  The key email is this one, from Campbell to Stephen Walkom:

To Stephen Walkom/Tor/NHL@NHL
Subject Re: Delayed Penalties/High Sticks 02/#/2007 4:24 pm

A bend in the road is a dead end if you round the corner and Dean Warren is standing there. Your answer re: his high stick calls and the score of the game were horse shit. The 3rd call on [player] was while they were down 5 on 4 and on a def zone face off vs that little fake artist [player] I had him in [city] biggest faker going. And Warren fell for it when he grabbed his face on a face off. Your supposed to see the act, not call the embellishing act. Dean Warren has to go with [referee] There must be a way to get rid of this guy. Is there a way we can tract (sic) and total minors called by referees this year. We could then get the minors they call per game. … or with 2 [referees on the ice] it is impossible? Warren and [referee] out of [club’s] games. Give them to [referees].

Dellow went back through the games in February of 2007 to try and identify the incident:

OK – this one I think we can nail down. We know that Campbell is upset about a situation involving a team that was already down to 5 v 4, on a defensive zone faceoff against a “little fake artist” who Campbell had (presumably in New York when he coached the Rangers). We also know that it was that player’s third penalty of the night. We can assume, from the chair’s description of this as being a few weeks after some earlier February emails, that it was in late February.

As it so happens, there is a game featuring players that meet this description. On February 24, 2007, Dean Warren reffed a game between the Bruins and the Panthers. At 13:29 of the second, Alexei Semenov was called for high sticking. Marc Savard, who played for Colin Campbell when he coached the Rangers, came out over the boards. He glided towards the dot where he faced off with Panthers penalty killer…Gregory Campbell. The puck was dropped and Campbell was called for high sticking. His third penalty of the game.

This is the only game from February, 2007 that meets the description.

However, among the emails released in the case this wasn’t the only one Campbell made on behalf of his son.  Here’s another exchange Dellow found, from November of 2007:

From: Colin Campbell
Sent: 11/#/2007 09:54 PM EST
To: Stephen Walkom
Subject: Penalty

Game not televised. Radio announcers said it was a bullshit penalty…you need to find out for me. How…I don’t know but this was awful. 1:30 left in 2-1 game for [team] and [player] scored with 2 second left to tie it up them won in OT. FUCK

From: Stephen Walkom
Sent: 11/#/2007 09:56 PM EST
To: Colin Campbell
Subject: Re: Penalty

ok ill find out….

Re: Penalty
11/#/2007 10:48 PM
Colin Campbell to Stephen Walkom

Did you find out anything? It was [another referee] that made the call. Keep Warren and gas this shithead. 90 seconds left and he calls a weak penalty…tripping. Makes me sick. If I was at the game I would have had to fine me.

Once again, Dellow went digging in the NHL game archives, and found the following:

So we know that this game took place in November of 2007. I went through and looked for November 2007 games in which a penalty was called late in a 2-1 game and the team that went on the power play scored and won in overtime. I found this Florida-Atlanta game, which looks to be the only one that meets the description. After a Panther was penalized late, the Thrashers tied it up and won it in overtime. The player who was penalized? None other than Gregory Campbell. Brian Pochmara and Don VanMassenhoven were the referees in that game and both are, as far as I can tell, still NHL referees.

Looking through the NHL game reports, it does appear that Dellow has identified the games referred to in these emails.  If he has, it clearly indicates the charges in the outset: that Campbell repeatedly complained about NHL officiating on behalf of his son, and that he exhibited a clear bias against Bruins forward Marc Savard – both things which should be unacceptable in a supposedly impartial league disciplinarian.

Media reaction was initially confined to the blogs – where Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! and Jesse Connolly both have strong pieces up – but has since spread to more mainstream outlets.  The league’s reaction so far has been to deny everything; NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was vehement in his defence of Campbell:

“Any suggestion that Colin Campbell performs his job with any less than 100% integrity at all times and in every decision he makes is way off base and just factually wrong.  Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, or more importantly a perceived conflict of interest,  the League has implemented various structural protections that prohibit Colie from having any oversight or disciplinary authority relating to any game in which his son, Gregory, plays.  Its always fair to question and criticize League decisions as being wrong, but not on the basis that they aren’t justly and fairly arrived at.”

For his part, Campbell tried to downplay the importance of the emails:

“For me, it’s much ado about nothing. Stephen and I would have banter back and forth and Stephen knows I’m a (hockey) dad venting and both of us knowing it wouldn’t go any further than that. Stephen would laugh at me. The game in question (when Gregory Campbell was penalized late in the Atlanta-Florida game) wasn’t on TV and I was asking Stephen to find out for me if it was a soft call. That’s all there ever was to it. The (refs) working that game are still in the league, aren’t they? Stephen handled the officials, just like Terry Gregson does now, and I’ve got a lot of emails to those guys asking about this soft call or that soft call and that’s in a lot of games. I’m not ultimately responsible for the (on-ice) officials, that’s Terry Gregson’s responsibility, but I have to answer to GMs on these calls.”

While Campbell characterizes the discourse as a hockey dad venting, it’s hard to look at it in that light.  At the very least, the optics are terrible – Campbell was Walkom’s boss, and Walkom was in charge of the referees that had clearly displeased Campbell.  It’s a pretty straight line, and it isn’t a good one.  And when Campbell can talk to the director of officiating about calls made against his son, Daly’s claim that “the League has implemented various structural protections that prohibit Colie from having any oversight or disciplinary authority relating to any game in which his son, Gregory, plays” (italics mine) is demonstrably false.

Finally, the question about whether Campbell’s distaste for Marc Savard influenced his decision on whether Matt Cooke should face discipline for concussing the Bruins’ forward (Cooke was not suspended) is almost impossible to answer, though once again the optics aren’t good.

In any event, as long as the one of the league’s senior executives is allowed to complain about calls made against his son to his subordinate, the director of officiating, there’s going to be a taint of partiality and unfairness.  It’s difficult to envision a scenario short of Campbell’s dismissal that would resolve that taint.