By Stu Hackel
It sure is great to launch a brand new blog when the previous day's stories include the NHL's Senior VP of Hockey Operations accused of all sorts of improprieties, a head coach fired, the league's most unpopular player lambasted for sucker punching an opponent and igniting a '70s style brawl, the scion of a hockey dynasty demoted to the minors by his father the GM after he got tossed drunk from a bar and punched out a cab driver.
A nice time to start.
The accusations against Colin Campbell emerged from e-mails he exchanged with then-director of officiating Stephen Walkom. They were submitted into evidence over a year ago in an Ontario Labor Relations Board wrongful dismissal case filed by former NHL referee Dean Warren (and originally reported by Robert Cribb in The Toronto Star.) Hockey blogger Tyler Dellow, who is a lawyer, pored over the transcript and did some admirable forensic work to fill in the blanks, figuring out some of the names and dates from the e-mails that the board had blacked in its records of the case. Dellow then posted some thoughts on what he had learned in his blog http://www.mc79hockey.com/?p=3518 (which sometimes crashes, but has been cached here. Thanks to Yahoo's Puck Daddy for the link).
What did Dellow uncover? That Campbell had made some caustic remarks about the performance of on-ice offiicals to Walkom, and complained about what he thought were soft calls against his son, Gregory, who was then playing for the Panthers. In one case, Campbell was pretty derogatory about a player his son had high-sticked in Feb. 2007 and who Campbell said he had coached with the New York Rangers. Campbell called that player the "biggest faker going" who "hates officials as well." That player, Dellow determined, is Marc Savard of the Bruins.
Dellow said he posted this info on Twitter and that a Boston fan who tweets under the name of @Texas_Gal reminded him that "Matt Cooke wasn’t suspended for concussing Marc Savard last year. Did Campbell’s apparent loathing of Savard play into it? Who knows."
Everyone who follows hockey has seen that hit many times already, but here it is for those of you who are late to the party...
...and it is one of the head shots that forced NHL GMs to propose this year's new Rule 48, making blindside and lateral hits to the head illegal. Savard was seriously concussed, but he rushed back for the playoffs. His return proved to be too soon. He has not played since.
Dellow pointed out on his blog, "In fairness to the NHL, it’s amended the rules with respect to hits to the head since then. This, though, is one reason that you don’t want people judging cases in which they have personal relationships with parties; if nothing else, the optics are terrible."
But not everyone adopted Dellow's fairness. "Perhaps it's a coincidence, and perhaps it's not," wrote Adam Gertz on Fanhouse.
That was tame by comparison to this more typical response in the hockey blogosphere by BReynolds of Hockey Wilderness whose lengthy screed concludes, "Colin Campbell has been called a lot of things in his time with the NHL. Idiot, moron, illogical, inconsistent. These e-mails show he is also abusive of his power, abusive toward the players he lords over, and they also show that he is a cheater."
To Rob Pizzo on the Sirius satellite radio's Puck Daddy show (audio), this was a "eureka moment," the evidence of an inherent bias. "We knew it, but now we have evidence!" Pizzo exclaimed, and it should be enough to get Campbell ousted.
It all sounds quite damning, and to many hockey fans and bloggers it is. It's easy to see why. They have long suffered the frustrations caused by the vagaries of NHL justice, and what is perceived to be an overarching randomness. These folks are primed to believe that some sort of hidden agenda or conspiracy is at work to deny someone a fair shot a the playoffs or the Stanley Cup.
However, this "evidence" against Campbell's integrity in the Savard-Cooke incident doesn't quite match the facts. He's inconsistent, yes. Even negligent at times. But a cheater on a vindictive bent toward a player against whom he holds a grudge? That's wrong.
First, if Campbell's rulings were colored by his being Gregory's father, why (as Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada points out) didn't he suspend Steve Ott of the Dallas Stars for this blatant charge against young Campbell in March, 2009?
Friedman learned from speaking to a number of officials that they never heard Campbell urge them to favor his son. Even those who don't like him wouldn't question his integrity.
When it comes to Campbell's thoughts on Savard in 2007, its easy to forget Savard's reputation before his transformation into a very good team player for the Bruins last season. He was widely thought to be a selfish player and a frequent embellisher. Campbell wasn't saying anything in those e-mails that coaches and GMs hadn't been saying among themselves for years.
Secondly, the reason for Campbell's inaction on Cooke had nothing to do with any enmity toward Savard, but his insistence on being equitable within the NHL's strange system of justice, which is, after all, his job. In fact, as Bob McKenzie of TSN pointed out yesterday (video), "I would venture a very strong guess that whatever Colie Campbell and the hockey operations department think of the way Matt Cooke plays the game is far worse than whatever Marc Savard would be deemed in terms of being a little faker."
In the aftermath of Cooke's hit on Savard last March, with concerns about head shots reaching a crescendo, the omnipresent pressure on Campbell to suspend Cooke began with his boss, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who demanded that Campbell find a way to dispense supplementary discipline on the Penguins forward even though blindside hits to the head at the time were within the rules.
But Campbell wouldn't do it. A senior league official who attended the GMs meeting last March, just after the Cooke hit, says Bettman and Campbell "went back and forth" on the question of a suspension during the session, but Campbell wouldn't give in even though he detested the hit on Savard. He could not in good conscience suspend Cooke because there was no provision for it, just as he did not suspend Mike Richards earlier in the season for his blindside head shot to the Panthers' David Booth...
...that concussed Booth and cost him the remainder of the season. Campbell could have created one -- it wouldn't have been hard to call it a deliberate attempt to injure -- but he is not charged with inventing policy, just enforcing it. And that policy emanates from the NHL GMs.
This isn't to say that Colin Campbell hasn't done anything improper. In an email to TSN, Campbell dismissed the exchanges with Walkom as "banter," the writings of "a (hockey) dad venting and both of us knowing it wouldn't go any further than that." As proof that he doesn't hold grudges, Campbell mentions that the officials he criticized are "still in the league, aren't they?" And, ever the Shakespearean, he called all this "much ado about nothing."
Well, methinks he doth protest too much. Campbell has a serious perception problem now apart from his frequently soft rulings on violent play. The e-mails show that he's not above the fray, not the dispassionate arbiter that many believe his job demands, even if he has never allowed his feelings to influence his decisions.
The NHL has backed Campbell publicly with Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly telling TSN, "Any suggestion that Colin Campbell performs his job with any less than 100 percent integrity at all times and in every decision he makes is way off base and just factually wrong.")
Perhaps Campbell will survive this. At the moment, the ground beneath him can't be very stable.