Hard Times

Being against this is easy. Figuring out how to prevent it is hard.

Now is a hard time to be a hockey fan. Granted, there have always been moral tensions surrounding the game.  The sport has been full of brutal violence and crass exploitation for nearly a hundred years, and neither of those things have ever been easy to stomach. But this season, a creeping understanding of the long-term dangers of brain injuries that had been brewing beneath the surface of hockey for half a decade finally exploded into the mass consciousness. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a lot of hockey people, at every level of the game, have suffered a crisis of conscience this season about what it means to love this sport. And the playoffs? Oh, honey, if you’re feeling traumatized by this postseason, get in line.

Understandably, there has been a lot of outrage.  This is a good thing. It’s a necessary first step. The building outrage over the NHL’s inadequate concussion-prevention policies and concussion-treatment protocols has brought the issue to the forefront of hockey discourse. It’s forced a conversation that a lot of people in the League offices would prefer not to have. It’s shown that fan sentiment and media muckraking can indeed have an impact on the direction of the game.

But we have been outraged for a year now, many of us longer. Half the articles that are being written today about this brutal postseason have the same essential content as the articles written after the spate of possibly CTE-related deaths last summer, names and quotations changed. The argument is the same: something must be done, more must be done, this is intolerable, this is immoral, it is not enough, the NHL has blood on it’s hands, somebody is going to die, something must be done. The case-study varies but the reaction doesn’t. This year has been one long string of terrible incidents and one long howl of moral outrage.

The NHL needs to change, this is beyond questioning. But the response needs to change too. Because- and I am sorry to say this- outrage is cheap. Outrage is cheap and easy and, on some fundamental level, a little bit selfish. Outrage is a way of assuaging one’s own moral crisis at being a fan of something that is perhaps not ethically worthy of fanaticism. It’s a balm for the soul. It makes one feel better, to stand up on one’s soap box or milk crate or even just in the middle of the living room and delcare that I AM AGAINST HEAD HITS. It feels like taking a stand, doing the right thing. But in and of itself, being outraged is doing nothing.

Do not think this is something I am blaming others for. I’ve done it too. I’ve written those articles, I’ve screamed from my little milk crate about how something must be done. But then I had a dream, and in this dream Brendan Shanahan came to me and said, okay, yes, you are right, Ellen, you have the right of it. I will do what you want. What, tell me, exactly, should we do?

And I realized that I was not entirely sure.  More, yes, but how much more?  Exactly?  And how?  And why?

So long as we talk about nothing but how angry we are and how wrong the League is and what a joke/travesty/abomination all the decisions are, we can preserve an illusion of consensus and certainty, and we can pat each other on the back for having the right opinion. We create the illusion of a unified movement. But scratch the surface just a little, start asking questions about specifics, and the consensus evaporates instantly. People often blame the NHL’s character (too traditional) or greed (violence sells) for impairing the reformation of League justice, but if the League, today, agreed to completely and totally give ‘us’ change-minded people everything ‘we’ want, what exactly would that be? Take ten people who all think the League’s handling of supplementary discipline in these playoffs has been totally wrong, sit them down in a room and have them write out what they would do instead. No more vague calls for ‘more’ and ‘different’ and ‘change’. Specifics, written out in games and dollars, with a rationalizing logic for each.

You would get ten different plans, some of them so radically different they would provoke just as much anger as the NHL’s decisions. Perhaps even more.

We, the fans and media, have changed. Our tolerance for violence has shifted, our concern for player safety has grown, we are no longer comfortable with the NHL’s handling of the game’s violence. Good for us. Gold stars all around.

But all we had to do to change was to stop saying one thing and start saying another. It is very easy for a person to change their opinion. But the NHL is not a person. It is a vast institution comprised of a dozen different constituencies, each with many different concerns. The NHL is not just Shanahan, it’s not just Bettman. It’s players, managers, trainers, and doctors. It’s on-ice officials, off-ice officials, and administrators. It’s owners, sponsors, advertisers, and television networks. It’s developmental leagues and farm systems. It’s fans and media. And what this absolutely massive amalgamation of tens of thousands of people needs to change is nothing so simple as an opinion, but policy. To change the NHL is not simply a matter of will. It’s a matter of detailed, complex negotiation.

More suspensions? Okay, fine, great. How many more? For exactly what kind of contact? How many games per? Why? How many dollars in fines? To the players or the teams? Why? How much of punishment should be determined by intent? How much by injury? How much by repeat-offender status? Who should judge? How should they be appointed?  Should mandatory suspension lengths be written into the rules? Does the victim have some responsibility for his own safety? How much? Why? Should consequences for the franchise be taken into consideration? Should there be separate policies for the postseason? How much of the power to deter should lie with the officials on the ice? How much with the Department of Player Safety? Should fighting be prohibited? With what kind of punishments?

Do not say consistency. Calls for consistency are a red herring, another thing that creates the illusion of consensus where none exists. There is not a single outraged person anywhere on the internet who would be happy with ‘consistent’ discipline if it was consistent according to the wrong standard. Before one insists on consistency one has to define what is right, otherwise the best one can hope for is consistently wrong.

Do not say whatever it takes. There is not one hockey fan who is willing to do whatever it takes in the name of player safety. If player safety is the most important thing and no other value matters, than call for the prohibition of all contact and ban anyone from the sport who violates that prohibition. Players would become dramatically safer immediately. But, of course, the game would be essentially different.  Nobody actually wants whatever it takes, it just sounds virtuous to say it.

And please, please, do not say nothing will ever change. Cynicism is even cheaper than outrage. Yes, the NHL is a large and unwieldy and conservative institution, but there was never any institution in the history of the world so great and solid that it could not be moved. The NHL has changed dramatically through its history, and there were many forms of violence- stick violence, notably- that it once merrily tolerated that have now been almost wholly eradicated. The forces in the NHL that support concussive violence can be shifted. They can evolve, they can be persuaded, coerced or co-opted. You know how I know this? Because fans and play-by-play announcers and television commentators used to be one of those pro-head-hit constituencies. We used to be the people cheering the high elbows and the jumping charges and chuckling at the guy stumbling to get up after. We’ve changed, in huge numbers, and every day more and more of us are coming around. And if we can change, than advertisers and sponsors can change, and if they can change, than owners can change, and if owners can change, the League can change. Throwing up your hands and crying impossible is just absolving yourself of having to contemplate the difficult work of negotiation, persuasion, and slow, piece-by-piece transformation that real change requires.

The process has already begun. It is all around us. Shanahan has set out to create a more transparent, more consistent, more articulate process of supplementary discipline than ever before. No, it is not completely transparent or consistent or articulate, because- again- he has to work within a system that still has powerful interests that do not yet support him. He has not, by himself, been able to change the entire disciplinary structure of the League in one season.  No one and nothing that actually exists could possibly have done so. But he has pushed in a direction no NHL disciplinarian has ever pushed before, and next year he will be able to push further.

Teams are beginning to take concussions seriously. They’re holding players with head injuries on the IR for longer stretches, opening up to the notion of ‘however long it takes’ for a guy to be ready. Their behavior reflects a far more accurate and compassionate understanding of brain trauma than hockey has ever had before. It’s not perfect- there are still teams who rush guys back, still coaches who talk about concussion symptoms like they’re psychosomatic excuses- but fewer than before, and now, rather than being blithely accepted, such decisions and assertions are widely challenged.

And players are beginning to understand the danger. More and more players are talking about hits to the head as something unnecessary and unacceptable, more and more are admitting to being scared and upset by the tales of CTE and the effects it can have on a man’s later life. Of course, some of them are still hiding concussions and playing when they should not be. Some of them are still defending obvious headhunting as good hockey plays. But now, playing through symptoms and shrugging off a shoulder to the skull are both controversial, not just in the papers but within dressing rooms.

Is it enough yet? No, of course not, absolutely not, but nothing at the beginning was ever the entirety of what it will be at the end, and this is no small transformation that we’re dealing with. Adapting hockey to reduce concussions and CTE is not some small, simple thing. It’s not just a matter of tossing out a few extra suspensions and be done with it. It will transform the game in a hundred interconnected ways that we cannot even yet begin to predict. It requires shifts not just in rules and punishments but in culture- the culture of on-ice officiating, the culture of playing, the culture of watching, the culture of coaching. It requires redefining fundamental values and archetypes- a new understanding of a clean hit, a new sensibility about the acceptable level of risk and danger, a new vision of the balance between on-ice punishments and off-ice ones. It will affect our understanding of what a hockey career is and how long it should last. It will affect the CBA. It will affect equipment. It will effect the outcomes of games and seasons and lifetimes.

Once, years ago, when I was young as a fan and the game was new, I sent up a prayer for a rule like a scalpel, that could “cut out all the ugly and terrifying moments but still leave all the rest of it, including the violence and the drama and the thrill, intact.” I am not the only hockey fan to send up that prayer. But despite all our wishing, that rule doesn’t exist- at least, not as one thing. If it can exist at all, it will be a series of changes, some very big and some very small, that only together, in the aggregate, will be able to create the new balance of safety and danger that we can live with. The process of finding these changes is going to be long, and it is going to be slow, and it is going to be frustrating, full of heated debates, mistakes, inconsistencies, and false starts. There are going to be bad decisions enthusiastically embraced and good decisions met with resistance. There’s going to be trouble, and sacrifice, and everyone who participates on any level is going to end up looking like an idiot or an asshole more than once.

So why do it at all? Because that’s how change happens, in the real world, in big institutions with lots of contending constituencies.

Keep your outrage, if it helps you commit to the process. Outrage that drives policy proposals, debate, concern, and interest in the mechanisms of transformation is a very good thing. Outrage that makes people follow the research and development camps, the CBA negotiations, that inspires active engagement with the League, is great and necessary and beautiful. But outrage that begins with self-righteousness and ends with despair? That’s useless. It doesn’t make players safer and it doesn’t make hockey better.

The game is trying to shift, lurching, from one consensus point to another, but the change can’t be completed until the new consensus is defined. And that can’t happen until the constituency that is pushing hardest for change- the fans and the media- stop using their outrage to feel good about themselves and start using it to push useful policy proposals. Getting angry is the easy part. But, like so many of Shanahan’s suspensions, it’s just not enough.

Comments (64)

  1. If you replaced the words “hockey” with “politics”, “NHL” with “government”, and “head shots” with pretty much any issue of the day (“war”, “banks”, etc etc), maybe people in this country (and the one to the south) would realize that things are *never* as simple as they want them to be.

    but great post all around. you literally just described the entire world and every political activist in it using a hockey analogy.

  2. 1. Why are ratings up?

    2. Why don’t you watch tennis?

  3. Love your stuff Ellen. Great, great job.

  4. The NHL needs to take a lesson from rugby. Look at this and tell me that having something similar in place for the NHL wouldnt solve a lot of the complaints we’ve had so far:

    http://www.irb.com/mm/document/lawsregs/0/regulation17090730_8711.pdf (sections 17.14 and Appendix 1 in particular).

    The hardest part would be finding a sensible group of people to act as the citing commissioners, because whoever Shanahan has on his team (apparently theres a team and not just him?) clearly have no idea what they are doing.

  5. Ellen,
    Great article, nicely written and argued.
    Maybe the NHL can think about not allowing the team to replace a suspended player on the roster.
    If a team is going to end up shorthanded for the next game or a few, they would think twice about employing the ones bringing the mayhem.
    And the sensible players will hopefully develop a form of respect, if not for the opposition, at least for their team.

    • I’ve been saying the same thing for a while. The teams need to have some sort of punishment. There is no deterrent for a lot of players. If they aren’t going to think about the other player, maybe they will think about handicapping their team.

      • Or hit the owners in the pocketbook. Escalating fines for incidences of illegal hits to the head.

        Maybe have the salary of the injured player count against the cap of the offender’s team for the duration of the injury.

        Like all others, these ideas have problems–NY and CHI can afford more fines than PHX, for instance.

  6. Why not institute mandatory suspension lengths for deliberate hits to the head? 20 games for the first offense, 40 for the second, and a year for the third (for example, feel free to debate the length). It would remove discretion from the call, establish some consistency and eliminate nagging suspicions that star players get shorter suspensions. I pay to watch players play hockey, not lie on the ice and get taken off on a stretcher. And please don’t come back with “It would eliminate hitting, go watch figure skating” because to suppose that is just inane. Clean, hard hits are great and will always be part of the game. But in my NHL there’s no place for you if you try to injure another player.

    • I like consistency, and I think that is where you are going with this. But what is deliberate to me may not be deliberate to you. Hagelin’s elbow wasn’t deliberate to me, but to someone else, it surely was. Either way, someone is making a judgment call.

      • Fair comment…to me Hagelin’s elbow was clearly deliberate. You’re right that at some point someone is making a judgment call whether the hit was “deliberate”. But at least a mandatory suspension length would eliminate the variable of wildly inconsistent application of discipline

        • I would agree to that. Any hit to the head is a 2 game suspension. A deliberate hit to the head is a 4 game suspension. Tack on 2 games if the person has been suspended for anything in the last calendar year, and one game for a suspension in the past 3 years. Add on 4 games if they have been suspended two or more times in the past year.

          • I would argue the suspensions need to be longer than that to classify as a deterrent. For example, Duncan Keith attacked Daniel Sedin with an elbow to the face. Not a hockey play, not even a hit, a blatant elbow to the face. He got a 5-game suspension which is relatively severe (unfortunately) by league standards, but he still loses only about 6% of his salary and got a nice rest right before the playoffs. I don’t think that deters anyone from doing the same thing.

  7. Something needs to change for sure. I would like the NHL to make the team with a suspended player lose a roster spot for however long that player is suspended.

    The Rangers would have to play with 19 men for the next few games.
    The Penguins would have to play with 18 tonight.

    Make the teams have some sort of penalty. I will pick on Carkner because it illustrates my point. What penalty did Carkner really get for jumping Boyle in game 2? It’s not like Carkner is an important player to the Sens. He may not have even played in game 3 anyways. He doesn’t really need the money he lost. He had absolutely nothing to lose. If the Sens had to dress one less player, it might not have happened though.

    You’ll still get the accidents, but at least teams will be penalized too. Players may think twice about really handicapping their team for 1, 2, or more games. The Rangers playing down a man for 3 games would be pretty significant.

    • I really do like that idea. I don’t think you can deter anything with such small financial penalties, but a team that plays down a man is really feeling the suspension now. When Asham/Carkner are out, they will probably be replaced with a player that is more talented (albeit less experienced) from the AHL and I am not sure the team’s really feel the loss.

      • Exactly. Nothing against 4th liners, but most of them are a dime a dozen. They all have roughly the same skills. Finding a replacement is easy for the team.

        The maximum fine of $2,500 should increase, and I think it will in the CBA over the summer. Hopefully athletes feel that a bit more too.

    • I like this idea

    • Losing a lineup spot would not work. The idea is to increase player safety. Forcing a team to play with a shortened bench is contrary to player safety, especially in the playoffs with the potential for multiple overtimes. The NHLPA would never go for this, and should never go for this.

      The rugby process and penalties (shown in Appendix 1) are pretty interesting. I’d assume there is little “Testicle grabbing or twisting or squeezing” that takes place in a rugby scrum – especially in leagues where there are dozens of camera angles available.

      • Getting tired shouldn’t decrease safety. If anything, it will slow them down. I doubt the NHLPA will go for this either, but I still like the idea. Handing out suspensions obviously isn’t working. Something has to be done to make the players stop doing this. You could argue for longer suspensions, but I still don’t think that will stop some things from happening. You could have suspended Carkner for two games, or maybe even three, and it probably still would have been worth it to him (and Ottawa). If you take away that roster spot, there is lots more riding on getting suspended, and Carkner surely wouldn’t have done what he did.

        I get what you’re saying, and I would be all for stiffer penalties, but there is still little incentive for the team to employ dirty players. If a team can just replace an Aaron Asham or a Raffi Torres, it is no big deal. Do you think Mario Lemieux would have dealt with Matt Cooke for so long if the Penguins had to play down a man while he had those suspensions?

  8. Great article! What can the NHL do? Is zero tolerance on head shots and leaving your feet the next step? Like baseball’s steroid policy where a first offense is 50 games, will the NHL have to give an automatic 10-15 game suspension to get the point across? Will every subsequent offense result in one more game added to the suspension? Not sure if this is good or bad to have on the table while the CBA expires after the playoffs. The biggest problem is these players have been playing one way their whole lives so it’s difficult to change that but if Matt Cooke did it, it seems anyone should be able to change their game.

    • I was thinking the same thing – yes, changing is going to be difficult, but I was there making jokes about Matt Cooke’s “reformation”, and seeing the way he really has changed his game – I am enormously impressed. Even with all the nasty play in the Pens/Flyers series, he’s kept on the right side of the line. If a player with his rep can manage it, I don’t think anyone else in the League has an excuse.

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  10. This was a great post. Thanks.

  11. You might put me in the cynical category after this comment, but what influence do we as fans have simply by drafting plans for how to fix the problem and discussing them on the internet? For broader political issues this works out better since each one of us gets to vote. But we don’t get to decide on anything in the NHL, all we can do is choose to watch or not watch, choose to pay for tickets or not, etc – it ultimately comes down to our money, whether it comes from our attention (ads, etc) or from us paying for stuff.

    Are we ready to give up the game unless it changes? I don’t think any of us are. What I guess I’m trying to get at, is do we have a good mechanism for trying to push for change? I’m sure that talking about the game’s problems make some difference, but it just feels slow and inefficient to me. I could be wrong though, and I’d like to be convinced why.

    • I didn’t get into this in the piece because it felt like it was taking the argument off track, but I think that because of the changing structure of hockey media, it is far more possible for fans to shift the discourse now than in the past. No, we can’t force specific change, but the barriers between fans and media are extremely permeable. Ideas- especially good, interesting, or unusual ideas- circulate around very easily on the internet, and I have seen numerous examples of (for example) a conversation starting on Twitter, getting picked up by a couple of blogs, and then the same idea ending up in print articles. Yes, most of the notions that fans have will remain with fans, but I think there is a good chance that if people who are vocal talk about concrete ideas, the best and most interesting of those ideas will at the very least reach the ears of the League.

      As I said, the very fact that hits to the head became such an issue so fast is largely due to fan and media outrage rather than any internal process of the NHL. The problem is that outrage which has no idea what it wants can never be satisfied, and if people- as they are now- act almost equally outraged by everything Shanahan does, then there’s no more pressure in any specific direction. The outrage loses focus and becomes just a general sense of malcontent. So the other reason for fans to focus their discourse is so they can identify which League decisions are progressive and which are regressive, and (insha’allah) respond more positively to the latter, thereby making it possible for the NHL to understand what specific changes are most important to the most people.

  12. To me this is all a moot point. Yes, the article is very well written (as usual!) and in the end, it’s mostly right.
    The thing is, and maybe that makes me cynical, the NHL is NOT interested in actually effecting any changes. Sure, no one wants to see a star player taken off the ice on a stretcher, least of all the league. But in the end ratings are up, viewership is at an all-time high, the league is getting tons of exposure in the USA (which is, and has been, its most constant goal ever since Bettman was hired), it just negotiated its largest-ever TV deal in the States… Hockey is well and good, the league has no interest in changing things. And by the league, I mean the 30 governors who pull the strings – the team owners. They are the ones raking in record amounts of money.
    Other people have expressed this much better than me (Tom Benjamin at Canuks Corner and Tyler Delow at mc79hockey amongst others). The league has decided that hockey as it is now, is better for business than hockey as it would be if borderline hits were taken out. Because if you want to take out the injurious hits (Torres on Hossa for example), you’ll be taking out a small portion of hitting (no I’m no in that ‘don’t pussify the game’ crowd, I’m just being realistic) and that small portion of hitting you’re taking out is what sells the game down south.
    Proof of that is pretty simple: at the beginning of this season, Shannahan seemed pretty intent on changing the culture. Long, harsh suspensions are a sure fire way to curb this senseless violence, it worked in the past (Matt Cooke) and and would work again. In his first 2 months on the job, we saw record suspensions, both in numbers and length. Then the owners, worried that they’d lose a key player to a 20 game suspension for elbowing, pushed back and told him to back off. He was essentially neutered and now, Shannahan is a carbon copy of what Campbell was until last year, plus the spiffy videos. The league does not want change. They will do all they can to extend the current situation for as long as possible.
    So to me, sure we can debate about new and improved ways of managing supplemental discipline (a recent FanPost at Copper and Blue seemed pretty well thought out to me) but it’s a pipe dream. Not gonna happen, not gonna change. Sorry about being cynical…

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