George Parros buzzed out of the NHL board of governors meeting Tuesday after being a fly on the wall for two days in Pebble Beach, California.
There were no grand presentations made by his department of player safety to the billionaires in the room. The biggest topic of conversation was physicality off the ice, between abusive coaches and players.
Sometimes at these meetings, Parros is asked to explain trends of violence in the NHL or his department’s own controversial decisions. But in a season in which the most notable suspension was for a loogie hocked by Garnet Hathaway of the Washington Capitals at Erik Gudbranson of the Anaheim Ducks — a three-game ban that wasn’t even in his jurisdiction — things have been quiet for Parros & Co.
Perhaps too quiet.
There have been six suspensions this season for illegal physical acts on the ice between players. The longest ban was four games, given to St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo for cross-checking and injuring Viktor Arvidsson of the Predators. Two others were for three games. In total, the department of player safety has handed out 15 games’ worth of suspensions since the start of the preseason.
By this time last season, there had been 11 suspensions totaling 44 games; take Tom Wilson out of the equation, and it’s still 10 suspensions for 24 games.
By this time in 2017, there had been 11 suspensions for 29 games. Take Radko Gudas out of the equation, and it’s still 10 suspensions for 19 games.
By this time in 2016, there had been 10 suspensions for 31 games. Take Gudas out of the equation (again), and it’s still nine suspensions for 21 games.
While suspensions are down this season, it’s not like there haven’t been opportunities for the department of player safety to bump up its total. There have been seven fines handed out this season, all for physical acts; last season, we had five of them at this point.
As we stood in the foyer of a lovely golf course inn on Pebble Beach, I asked Parros if he thought the suspension totals have been a little low this season.
“You mean length-wise? Or the number of them?” he responded
Well, a little of both. Maybe a few suspensions seemed like they should have been four games, but they were two games instead. Maybe a few fines should have been suspensions, if only because the financial hit to the player is much more significant during a suspension. Unless you think a player like Evander Kane really cares about a $5,000 fine when he’s pulling down $8 million this season.
The vibe I get is that the department of player safety is aiming a little lower this season.
“I can’t comment on your vibe,” said Parros. “But we try to be consistent, like we have in the past. Whatever incident it might be — cross-checking, elbowing, boarding — we compare it to others, see where it stacks up and try to be consistent about it.”
This may not be the answer everyone is looking for, but it’s the answer I was hoping to hear.
The department of player safety gets maligned a lot by fans and media. The perception is that illegal acts would be even rarer than they are now if player safety dropped the ban hammer and had guys sit out for a dozen games rather than, say, three. Never mind that the collectively bargained neutral arbitrator would reduce those suspensions like he’s wielding a shrink ray.
I appreciate those who lobby for harsher punishments, but my biggest concern with the department of player safety has always been consistency. And when Parros says they go through the process of comparing an act to previous ones, he’s not kidding: Almost every decision to suspend or not to suspend is tied to an example from the past. Bortuzzo got four games in part because he pulled the same nonsense with Brock Nelson in 2017 to earn a fine. Alex Ovechkin didn’t earn a suspension for a hit on Jonathan Drouin because there were similar ones involving players like Cal Clutterbuck in which their skates leave the ice before a check, but it’s not a suspendable play.
I think many people would find it maddening if player safety dealt in arbitrary and inconsistent rulings rather than logic and precedent. So far this season, it has been the latter.
Now, I don’t think Parros’ team is perfect. There’s always room for improvement. And frankly, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few of those fines converted into short suspensions.
But it’s indisputable that the department, in conjunction with NHL rule changes, has had a positive impact on the league. New fans to the NHL might not remember the parade of stretchers we had that led to the passing of Rule 48, banning hits to the head. Player safety’s mandate was to educate players on the “right” way to deliver hits, and to target repeat offenders. I’d argue suspensions are down thanks to both.
Parros said there is one trend he’s happy to see.
“We ask so much of these guys. The game is so fast,” he said. “The trends that we see are the result of missed hits by a fraction of a second or an inch. There’s very little intention behind a lot of the stuff we see, so that’s all good.”
Yes, things are quiet. Perhaps too quiet. But that’s the thing about the NHL. Quiet can get loud pretty quickly.
“If you had asked me two weeks ago, we had hardly any suspensions,” said Parros. “These things come in waves.”
— The Ultimate Predator (@IAmUltimatePred) December 11, 2019
This might be the oddest Jersey Foul trend of the season. Via the masked man himself, the Ultimate Predator, it appears some Nashville Predators fans are ordering Colton Sissons jerseys and getting … Colton “Snossis” jerseys. It’s a nameplate that does require a modicum of attention, because it’s easily flipped. And flipped it was for these “Snossis” fans.
Three things about the World Cup postponement
1. For the second time this year, the World Cup of Hockey has been bumped from the tentative schedule because of the ongoing CBA talks between the players and owners. There was optimism from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly that the World Cup could return in February 2021, an in-season tournament favored by the players. The two sides are targeting 2024 and 2028 for the next World Cups. If the NHL chooses not to return to the Olympics — and that’s really up to the IOC and its unending avarice to decide — it will have been eight years between best-on-best tournaments. Heck of a way to grow the game, huh?
2. I’m convinced this is just a scheme by the Canadian stewards of the NHL to delay the inevitable, which is the pending American dominance of the international stage. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Brock Boeser, Matthew Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes, Johnny Gaudreau … an entire generation of proud patriots ready and willing to end the tyrannical dominance of the Canadians, like their sisters-in-arms on the U.S. women’s national team did in the Olympics. Meanwhile, the Canadians buy a few more years to work on the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid grown in whatever twisted laboratory from which they spring forth.
3. As it stands, the NHL plans to transform the 2021 All-Star Weekend into some sort of international event. Gary Bettman mentioned the North America vs. the World format. On the one hand, it could mean the return of those wicked eggplant-colored jerseys. On the other … been there, done that. Here’s a better idea: Some kind of a Ryder Cup-style 3-on-3 round robin, played on a single day, with the following teams: Canada, USA, Sweden/Finland and Team Ovechkin, which is a ragtag collection of European players that pledge allegiance to the Czar of Goals. Start the games at 10 a.m., roll all day. It would be a blast.
Listen To ESPN ON ICE
Emily Kaplan and I broke down the Jim Montgomery firing and the NHL’s four-point plan for addressing the coaching abuse scandals. Plus, U.S. women’s star Amanda Kessel joined us to talk about this week’s showdown with Canada. Listen to it here, and be sure to rate and review!
Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: Rick Bowness
It’s not how anyone wants to earn a head-coaching job. But after the Dallas Stars were forced to fire Montgomery, Bowness was named the team’s interim coach for the remainder of the season. He has been a head coach for five different teams, but last served as head coach for the 2003-04 Phoenix Coyotes. He has been waiting for another shot, while being one of the league’s most respected assistant coaches. And unlike other new coaches this season, he takes over a team in line for a playoff spot.
Loser: Doug Wilson
What a fall from grace for the San Jose Sharks, tumbling from the Western Conference finals to a point where firing Peter DeBoer seemed like a necessity to save the season. The Sharks are capped out. They don’t have many future assets to mortgage. They’re a porous defensive team whose offense may no longer be potent enough to overcome it. GM Doug Wilson has seen his team counted out before. But it shouldn’t have come to this.
Winner: Kim Davis
Davis is the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs. She’s now charged with directing a “multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey” as part of the NHL’s four-point plan to deal with coaches’ abuse. I’ve spoken at length with Davis before. She’s the kind of change agent that hockey needs, someone who’s a realist about the NHL’s demographic challenges but optimistic they can be overcome. A more prominent role for Davis is only a good thing.
The NHL deserves credit for creating a hotline in which team personnel can report abusive behavior from coaches and team officials. It’s an important step in trying to clean up the culture. But absent whistleblower protections, how many people are going to utilize it, knowing how easy it’s going to be for the accused to piece together who may have made the complaint? Bill Peters allegedly tried to demote Akim Aliu to the ECHL after Peters was confronted for his racist comments. The NHL needs to reassure players it’ll have their back if something like that happens in the future.
Winner: Jack Eichel
The Sabres star extended his points streak to 14 games. He’s the seventh different player in franchise history with a point streak of 14 or more games and the first since Tim Connolly from Dec. 23, 2009 to Jan. 25, 2010. He has played the Sabres into a playoff spot, and played himself into the Hart Trophy conversation.
Loser: Alexander Wennberg
A two-seasons-long “slump” for the Columbus Blue Jackets forward culminated in him being a healthy scratch this week. He has two assists in his past nine games and 10 points in 29 games this season. “Listen, I thought Wenny was really set to go. I watched him during camp, I knew where his concentrations were … and it’s at the other end right now, so I’m not waiting,” coach John Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch.
Ron Francis addresses the Bill Peters matter with the Seattle Times — including his reasoning for signing Peters to a new contract after he had disciplined Peters for physically abusing players. “We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that [physical abuse] situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”
From Ed Willes’ story on the coaching controversies, and a conversation with Colin Campbell: “Campbell, who can charitably be described as old school, said change had to come to the game, but he was uncomfortable with ‘turning back the calendar’ and judging events that occurred 20 or 30 years ago by the standards of 2019. It was, by any measure, a reasonable answer, but the next morning someone called from the NHL office wondering whether Campbell had spoken about coaches.”
P.K. Subban on his beverages of choice. “I love wine and I started collecting it. Although I don’t drink often, because it’s tough when I’m training. When I can drink, I enjoy wine or a really good tequila. I have a pretty big wine cellar, so I try to put more in each year. It’s been really fun to collect and taste wines from all over the world.”
Sidney Crosby and CCM Hockey are providing 87 sets of equipment to players in need around Nova Scotia.
The Minnesota All-Hockey Hair Team guy made a parody of “The Mandalorian” called “The Minnesotalorian.”
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Does the NHL have a gambling problem?
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Dimitri Filipovic did a terrific job with the NHL All-Regression team. On Taylor Hall: “There are some red flags about how his game will age into his 30s, and whether his injury-riddled history makes him a risky long-term investment this summer. But for a team that’s looking at buying him as a pure rental this season in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup, his shooting percentage and counting stats aren’t a real concern.”