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The NHL Suspension Policy

Today came the announcement that Sean Avery suspension will be for six games.  Six games for saying the words “sloppy seconds”.  That seems a bit excessive.  It is clear that the suspension is for far more than that one statement.  In the NHL press release there is the following Gary Bettman quote:

Mr. Avery has been warned repeatedly about his conduct and comments, which have too often been at odds with the manner in which his more than 700 fellow players conduct themselves.  Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, requiring a high standard of personal behavior. Mr. Avery forfeits that privilege for six games.

It is clear that the suspension is for many unpunished past transgressions as much as it is for the current one.  There are several problems that come from that policy.

The first problem is that it appears the NHL was waiting to pounce on Sean Avery with a sizeable suspension.  They had decided that the next thing he did would result in them throwing the book at him.  As a result, they were effectively out to get him.

This creates a situation of punishment that does not fit the crime.  A player in the NHL’s bad books gets a lengthy punishment for the same crime that another player goes unpunished for (or receives significantly lesser punishment) if the second player is one the league is happier with.  An example of a punishment that was much longer than the crime suited is Chris Simon’s 30 game suspension last year for a stomp on Jarkko Ruutu’s ankle:  The problem with this is suspensions are tied into league economics.  Star players are more likely to have shorter suspensions than more run-of-the-mill players who will not drive ticket sales and television attendance.  For example, Chris Pronger has received shorter suspensions for these reasons.

Pre-game trash talk has now been established as something that is suspendable.  That will lead to people looking at any pre-game interviews that are out of the ordinary and wondering if a suspension might be coming.  This will lead to less interesting pre-gram interviews (and they already are usually quite boring) and it will lead to a situation where the player who says something suspendable will not be somebody like Sean Avery who is widely hated in the hockey establishment.  It will not be somebody that fans are as excited to see get punished.  It might lead to some hard to justify decisions on future suspensions.

The fact that the words “sloppy seconds” are shown to be worth six games, it leaves a measuring stick for future suspensions.  When a player hits from behind or something similar and receives only 2 or 3 games in suspension, people will easily be able to measure that a rude comment is two or three times worse than a hit from behind.  This conclusion is not entirely accurate given the NHL’s position of suspensions and length being dependent upon the record of the player in question, but it will be a comparison that will be widely made.

As a case in point, on the same day as the Avery suspension there was another potentially suspendable event.  In the Tampa Bay Lightning at Philadelphia Flyers game, late in the first period Scottie Upshall of the Flyers hit Evgeni Artyukhin of the Lightning from behind.  Here is the play in question:

Clearly Upshall hit Artyukhin from behind.  Artyukhin’s head went into the glass and he was cut.  As a result, Upshall received a five minute boarding penalty and a game misconduct.  Upshall heard from the NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell about the hit.  There was no suspension.  Upshall had this to say about the conversation.

I’m glad I’m not suspended, but I definitely don’t think I should have been kicked out of the game.  He (Campbell) wanted me to try my best to let up on guys who are in a vulnerable position and that’s what I try to do. He said we’re not going to suspend you, but we’re trying to crack down on these hits.

This is a laughably weak position for Colin Campbell to take.  If the NHL is trying to crack down on hits from behind, then it would make sense to suspend Upshall.  Otherwise, there is little gained from calling Upshall - especially when the media learns of it and laughs at the lack of consequences.

Had Artyukhin been significantly hurt by the check, I am sure Upshall would have had a suspension.  An Artyukhin injury is less likely in this case because Scottie Upshall is six feet tall and Artyukhin is 6’4”.  The height difference favors Evgeni Artyukhin.  This is a problem with the NHL’s suspensions.  They often suspend for the result and not the intent.  The same hit would result in different suspensions depending upon if the player who gets hit is hurt.

The problem with a six game suspension for Sean Avery is that that is directly compared to the lack of suspension for Scottie Upshall.  Upshall was involved in a hit from behind.  That has to be considered more serious than an off-color pre-game comment.  However, it is hard to see that from the NHL’s reaction to these events.

It is not clear that the six game suspension is the end of Sean Avery’s problems.  It looks like the Dallas Stars are going to try to get rid of him.  Avery is not listed on the official Dallas Stars roster.  Generally injured and suspended players are listed on team rosters.  There are a few examples of official NHL rosters and player information on their website reflecting signings and trades before they are officially announced.  Maybe this is foreshadowing an upcoming event.

At any rate, a six game suspension for a pre-game comment which did not include any profanity and the likely further implications coming from the Dallas Stars team is an unreasonably big price to pay for Sean Avery.  It sticks out as a yardstick to compare other suspensions and non-suspensions for events where players are hurt.  That comparison is inevitably going to put the NHL in a hard place and make some future suspensions look bad.


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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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