Columnist image
Gary Lawless

TSN Senior Correspondent


The frame-by-frame dissection of questionable hits in the National Hockey League too often results in the Department of Player Safety (DOPS) making excuses for offenders, providing reasons why a hit is both dangerous and not worthy of discipline. The eye and smell tests are ignored and the lawyerspeak comes out. 

By name, the DOPS should first be in the business of eliminating unsafe hits. The onus shouldn’t be to determine why a hit technically sneaks under the wire of the rulebook. Close enough to an unsafe hit should result in discipline – not the opposite.

The DOPS too often appears to be looking for reasons not to hand out punishment. That isn’t going to change the culture in the NHL.

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler recently took a hit to the head from Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. Malkin received a two-minute minor for interference on the play, plus a roughing minor for his part in the ensuing scrum. The NHL determined no supplemental discipline was required but after a lot of noise from both the Jets and fans, agreed to have communications vice-president John Dellapina delve into the matter with the Winnipeg Sun.

“[DOPS] watch thousands of these and they think that the body took the main brunt. While the head might have been the first point of contact, that’s not relevant in the rule any more. Principal doesn’t mean first. They judge main and they believe that the shoulder took the main brunt of the hit.

“[Charging] was probably the one they thought was closest. At contact, his feet are in the process of coming off the ice. The way they usually suspend for charging is when they feel somebody launched himself into somebody. They don’t think that’s this. They think this is people coming together in the centre of the ice, you kind of brace yourself and lift up.

“While it’s technically interference, the way they apply the rules, if a guy is making a play on the puck, the fact that he fails to make the play on the puck doesn’t preclude you from hitting him.”

Dellapina is good at his job and lays out a clear and concise case for his colleagues. By the letter of the law he’s right and so are the decision makers in DOPS.

It’s not that player safety gets it wrong; it’s that they err on the wrong side of caution. The focus should be on the safety of the players on the ice and not the rights of potential offenders.

Wheeler’s take on the hit was more plain-spoken but strikes directly at what should be the mandate of DOPS.

“The whole job is player safety and when you start getting hit without the puck, when you’re not even looking at a guy and he hits you in the head, that doesn’t seem like a part of the game to me,” said Wheeler.

“Why is he hitting me at all? It has no impact on the play whatsoever. You know Evgeni Malkin is pretty aware of his surroundings on the ice. He’s one of the top players in the league and I think he knows who has the puck and who doesn’t have the puck. If I’m him and I hit a guy like that, it’s a cheap shot and that’s the way I see it.”

It’s not easy to suspend a player with a seven-figure salary or to deprive a team of a top scorer. The National Hockey League Players’ Association advocates on behalf of the hitters and not the hittees. That’s backward, particularly when we know hits to the head can have catastrophic consequences.

I don’t understand why players allow it to continue. They protect one another from the long arm of the law but not from one another and the systemic violence that causes careers to end prematurely.

The DOPS has a difficult job and they will never make everyone happy. But their starting point seems to have been lost over time.

Hits that involve the head should be covered by catch-all justice. Maybe a few hits that are “technically clean,” get caught in the net. Too bad. I’d rather see a few extra suspensions and fewer concussions.