Moving Toward an Independent Disciplinarian

Few people envy Colin Campbell – let’s state the obvious. With the uproar over concussions and league discipline policies, his position has to be one of the most stressful at NHL headquarters in New York.

The job is so undesirable because no matter what the person in the role will always fail to some degree. Decisions are too lenient or too strict, the punishment or lack thereof shows favoritism, or the person is accused of putting the league’s interests and image ahead of discipline. Campbell is always in a no win situation.

No matter what, the first two situations always exist. Whenever an offense occurs in hockey, one side will feel slighted regardless of the outcome. However, the issue of league interests is one that can be addressed.

A big problem for the NHL is an overall sense of secrecy. To those on the outside it appears to be an old boys club. Much like a business model from the 1950s, the executive discusses and makes decisions behind closed doors and everyone else should just be darn happy to be told the outcome. How was the decision made? Why was the decision made? That’s enough meddlesome questioning from you!

The reality of professional sports in the 21st century is that fans have far more access to information than ever before. Sports media provide a window into the actual operations and structure of the league. Simply waking up and reading the scores on the sports page is a thing of the past. In depth online discussions amongst fans about contracts, team finances, transfer agreements and discipline are the new reality.

Quite often fans know details of league decisions before the players and teams. And the NHL has done little to acknowledge this fact. While fans educate themselves on the business of hockey, the league seems content sitting in the corner with their ears plugged belting out the lyrics to Stompin’ Tom’s The Hockey Song.

Opening a Twitter account and having a Facebook page isn’t transparency. In today’s entertainment industry that’s called basic survival. Content makes the difference, and it is content that is lacking.

So no matter what, the current system of discipline just won’t survive. Why? So happy you asked! The current system is on borrowed time for two main reasons:

First and foremost, all decisions related to discipline come from NHL headquarters. Colin Campbell and the Hockey Operations department speak with offending players, interpret the rules and decide if discipline is needed, and if so, how severe it should be. The outcome is then communicated and the process is over. Fans are given little insight into the actual process except when an external source, such as a reporter, delves into it.

For a league already viewed as secretive, this type of closed door process only adds to suspicion.

Secondly, the decisions are made by former players. Before I go into this, I’ll acknowledge the counter argument. Who better to make a decision about hockey than someone who has played it professionally? I can see the validity to this. A former player understands the speed and complexities of the game better than anyone.

However, those who once played the game also have their predetermined opinions on the rules. Sometimes being on the inside can give a person tunnel vision. How that person played the game will always haunt their decisions. In other words, if the person was an enforcer, they’ll be called lenient. If they were skilled with less physical play, they’ll be called overly harsh. The lives of players are well documented, so no matter what there will be ammunition for those wanting to criticize the league.

From this come questions about a solution or change. For that, I turn to the example of transparency in police forces.

All too often police forces are criticized for investigating wrongdoing on the part of their fellow officers. The argument being that the process is flawed by favoritism and unwillingness to find problems with their rules and operations. To combat this stigma, independent groups are created to review complaints and make decisions on potential disciplinary action.

The NHL should learn from this example and look into the creation of a Player Discipline Ombudsperson. This would be an independent office, separate from the league and player’s association, with the sole purpose of reviewing instances of potential player wrongdoing. Any issue that, under the rules, could result in player discipline would go to this office. Essentially, if it goes to Campbell now, it would go to this ombudsperson instead.

For clarification sake, this would not be an office for creating the rules. That would still be the job of the league, teams and players. However, this office would be responsible for interpreting and applying the rules.

As for the actual ombudsperson, the selection would have to be made in a way that would avoid the issues of the current system. The ideal situation would be a person with a strong legal background and preferably with relevant experience interpreting sports issues. It couldn’t be a former professional hockey player, team executive or league employee.

This would have to be a truly independent person that understands the concept of interpreting and applying complicated rules/laws, while being free of the perceived bias of being from within the world of professional hockey.

All too often the hockey world pushes the image that the sport is only understood by those from within it. From this insular mindset comes distracting debates over side uses such as the difference between a reckless hit and a ‘good hockey play’.

When issues of player safety are involved, the focus needs to be on consistent and accurate application of the rules of the game. This can only be achieved, or at least be more closely achieved, by having an independent ombudsperson.

Having an ombudsperson based system also frees the NHL from the stigma of disciplinary decisions based more on politics and tradition than safety and consistency.

If absolutely nothing else, an independent disciplinarian would provide the transparency needed for maintaining legitimacy with a well educated and highly engaged fan base. An ombudsperson system, like any system of discipline, wouldn’t be perfect. Mistakes would be made and issues would arise.

However, this would be a huge step forward for a league that is getting more press coverage from endangering players’ lives than the upcoming playoffs.

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2 Responses to “Moving Toward an Independent Disciplinarian”

  1. Al Strachan.
    April 8, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    What a great idea. Bring in someone with no knowledge of hockey. And let’s try for a lawyer because lawyers have done so many wonderful things for society. Better still, let’s make it a whole committee of lawyers, preferably with representation from all the disdvantaged groups in society.
    Anybody who knows anything about hockey knows that Colin Campbell does a wonderful job and that we have him to thank for getting rid of all the tedious clutch-and-grab games that Brian Burke brought to the game when he was in charge of interpreting the rules.
    Because the media are incapable of understanding the situation is no reason to dismantle the structure and build one that is guaranteed to be far worse.

  2. Kevin Greenstein
    April 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    Hi Al, thanks for chiming in. The thing is, part of this is not necessarily a matter of what would be best for the game, but rather what is inevitable. Also, I do think it’s interesting that as a coach, Campbell espoused a slow-the-game-down style, while the teams Burke constructs tend to be quite fun to watch. As for the quality of the discipline process, we can agree to disagree. There have been too many instances where suspensions haven’t been close in length to what they should be, with the second, third and fourth chances given to Matt Cooke (before he was finally given an appropriate suspension for his most-recent infraction) serving as only one example of many such concerns.