Money Matters: How Profit Drives Suspensions In The NHL

April 21, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; Phoenix Coyotes fans hold up signs in support of left wing Raffi Torres (not pictured) who received a 25 game suspension from the NHL earlier today before game five of the 2012 Western Conference quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks at Jobing.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

The sad thing is, I kind of understand what Brendan Shanahan is thinking.

The NHL's vice president of player safety has to serve two masters when making his decisions on how long players should sit for various infractions. On one hand, Shanahan is supposed to consider the facts of the scenario - the illegality of the hit, the injury of the other player involved and any disciplinary history.

But on the other hand, hockey is a business, and Shanahan's ultimate bosses are the Board of Governors members, the team owners whose bottom-line revenue can be impacted by the absence of a key player. There's been a lot of talk that the BoG members were very unhappy with some of the harsh suspensions Shanahan handed down earlier in the season, which has led to him backing off, particularly when it came to marquee players.

The problem is, that's created a tiered system for suspension criteria. Even if the NHL won't admit it, and you'll see after the jump that they aren't, they have clearly created a curve where star players are punished less severely while penalties that hurt a star player are also dealt with in a sometimes comically harsh fashion.

Why? Because money talks.

After the jump, some quote from Shanahan where he talks himself into a corner, where the distinct tiers of discipline fall and how profit drives the whole thing.

As I was putting together this column, I came across a USA Today article where Shanahan talks extensively about the suspensions in the playoffs. It's well worth a read in full, but I'm going to pull out a few quotes that stood out to me.

The first one that jumped out was this paragraph about marquee players getting lesser suspensions.

"We look as deep as we can into each situation. There are some stars and superstars in all sports that have an ugly history of offenses. But there are fewer of them. I would say as a whole, they don't have a historical record of repeat offenses that other players might have. It always comes to the specific case and what happened. (Alex) Ovechkin got three games, and he's a superstar. Duncan Keith got five games, and he's a superstar. Mike Green. Nicklas Backstrom. We just look at their history. Then we have non-superstars who get one or two games because they don't have the history, either. We try to go past reputation and look directly at a guy's history. If you played a long time and you have a clean record, you will receive a shorter suspension, whether you are on the first line or fourth line."

I did enjoy that he conveniently left James Neal and his multiple and recent repeat offender moments out of this excuse, and that's really what it is. The incidents he mentions all got lots of publicity, and three of the four he throws out there are not the top-tier stars. Heck, Ovechkin is the only one of those mentioned who is the best player on his team. And Ovechkin is an outlier in that he's a superstar who has never really received the benefit of the doubt (insert European-born/Sidney Crosby-rivalry conspiracy theory here).

But talking about marquee players brings us to the first tier of the Shanahan system. If you are a marquee player not named Alex Ovechkin, you have to practically murder somebody or commit multiple offenses in the same game to get even a single game suspension, regardless of disciplinary history. Neal is an obvious example here, as is Shea Weber. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as well. When past history plays a part in determining suspension length, and rightly so, the fact that these marquee players receive more leeway snowballs with each incident they get away with. And when some of those players have a nasty habit of headhunting, and again, I'll reference Neal here, it becomes a situation where you're setting them up to believe they are above those pesky rules about shots to the head and charging.

One of the things my dad always tried to drill into me is when something doesn't make sense, follow the money. With those marquee players, the NHL believes people tune in to see those individuals and that taking those players out of the mix would decrease viewership/ticket sales/whatnot. You see evidence of this all the time in the teams they choose to put on NBC and the way they choose to advertise the league. The rest of the schmucks, at least from a business perspective, are fairly irrelevant. As for the question "who is a marquee player," think the better-known-players on the obvious suspects in terms of teams and the best non-goalie player from every other team in the league, or at least the face of the franchise.

There are three non-Alex Ovechkin exceptions I can find from this regular season after Shanahan was reined in by the BoG: Milan Lucic was suspended one game for a check from behind on Zac Rinaldo. Mike Green was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Brent Connolly. And Shane Doan was suspended three games for his chicken wing to the head of Jamie Benn. In all those cases, the suspended parties were repeat offenders, and in both cases, the incident was so obvious it was silly and could have easily been given more. And furthermore, the Benn incident falls into the violence on marquee players category that I'll get to below.

That brings us to a sub-tier of NHL discipline - scrub-on-scrub violence, with the phrase "scrub" meaning any player on the teams that don't show up on the national television schedule with regularity as well as players on the well-marketed teams without recognizable names. Here, again, you follow the money. If the incident gets national play or is so silly as to attract ridicule (think Dany Heatley and his chicken-wing elbow on Steve Ott at the end of last season), then there will be a nominal suspension. If there is media outrage that spills beyond the strictly local coverage, then it will be more significant. The money on the line is sponsorship dollars. If it gets enough attention, then sponsors get embarrassed and want to see something done. If it's Tom Sestito sideswiping Nicklas Grossmann hard enough to knock an N off his last name and the only people who seem to care work at Fox Sports Southwest, then no one cares because nationally, neither the players nor the plays register.

The final tier involves scrub-on-marquee-player incidents, such as Raffi Torres on Marian Hossa (above average player on team in the spotlight) or reaching back even further, Tom Kostopoulos on Brad Stuart (average player on a team near the center of the spotlight). Both players got the proverbial books thrown at them, and properly so in Torres' case at least, because they committed clear fouls that resulted in injuries, but had those fouls occurred against a Minnesota Wild or Ottawa Senator player, then mark my words the suspension would be much, much less. Heck, in the case of Kostopoulos, he was suspended based on criteria that wasn't even in the rulebook at the time because the hit got massive attention and was on one of those marquee team players.

The violence against marquee players multiplier is so strong that it can even override the fact that other marquee players typically don't get long suspensions. The classic example from this season is Duncan Keith on Daniel Sedin. Keith received five games. Doan on Benn falls under this as well.

This resonates so strongly with the BoG because the key players, and to a lesser extent the key teams, are considered the league's financial lifeblood. The risk that those players could be put out of action for a while scares them enough that the rules are different when it comes to them. I will give the league credit for this, though. Even though they will bring the hammer of Thor down upon a player who injures a marquee player on a marginally illegal play, they will not suspend when no penalty occurs.

Finally, back to Shanahan. I have no doubt he came in wanting to change this system. His early returns showed this, though he was faced with very few marquee players committing really dumb fouls. But his attitude, and in my opinion, the suspensions to Kris Letang and Max Pacioretty, scared the BoG into calling off the dogs, at least when it comes to the stars. It's unfortunate, because all the players in the league, not just those who are credited with bringing in the most revenue, deserve a fair and impartial system where money doesn't matter.


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