By Allan Muir
In a perfect world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would have sat patiently through the more than three hours of testimony during Monday's appeal proceedings for Patrick Kaleta's 10-game head shot suspension. Then he would have stroked his chin, deliberated for about five seconds and said, "You know what? Let's make it 20."
Instead, he did what most observers figured he would. He upheld the suspension that was initially handed down last week by discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, ensuring that the Sabres' serial predator would be kept off NHL ice for the better part of a month.
Not ideal, but it could have been worse. Bettman could have bought in to the laughable defense posed by the NHLPA that no rules had been broken because "the contact to [Jack] Johnson's head was unavoidable." Or that Shanahan failed to consider that a "material change to the body of [Johnson] immediately prior to the hit" significantly contributed to the head shot.
Or he could have agreed with the PA's contention that the length of the suspension was "disproportionate and excessive" because Shanahan improperly considered Kaleta's previous violations.
Instead, Bettman slapped those lightweight arguments down in his 17-page decision and called out Kaleta for being the punk that he is.
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"Regrettably, Mr. Kaleta stands out for his repeated violations of -- and seeming indifference to -- the Playing Rules put in place to protect other Players and, particularly, other Players' heads," Bettman said in today's official release by the NHL. (You can read Bettman's entire statement here.) "Specifically, Mr. Kaleta has committed a series of other serious head-related Playing Rule violations in each of the four most recent prior seasons.
"This is a remarkable record . . . for a Player . . . who has demonstrated a total disregard for the safety of other Players and, in particular, their heads. It's not only the frequency of his prior offenses, but, even more so, the fact that all of the offenses involved contact with or injury to an opponent's head that leads inexorably to the conclusion that Mr. Kaleta has not responded adequately to the progressive discipline that has been meted out to his thus far."
Yeah, that just happened.
Sadly, we might not have heard the last of this. Kaleta and the PA have the right under the new CBA to take their appeal to an independent arbitrator within seven days. There's a widely held belief that the PA is anxious to try out this new legal avenue as soon as possible, but honestly, even they have to realize that they're riding a nag here. They'd be better off waiting for a case where the deck isn't completely stacked against them . . . say, John Scott's inevitable suspension, assuming it goes longer than five games. But if Kaleta pushes it, we could have more of this dog-and-pony show to look forward to.
Unless the PA wises up, that is. The genius of Bettman's lengthy decision isn't simply the way in which he slaps down the spurious nature of the appeal. It's in how he frames the league as protectors of player safety.
"In the 16 months since the [Raffi] Torres opinion was rendered, the League has continued its commitment to better protect Players' heads through the adoption and enforcement of new Playing Rules, in addition to continuing to evaluate whether existing rules merit further refinement. For example, prior to this Season, two new such rules were implemented: a mandatory visor rule and [another] which prohibits Players from removing their helmets prior to fisticuffs."
It didn't go down that path alone, of course, but this still a kind of documentation that will go over great in court should anyone ever decide to pursue an NFL-style legal confrontation with the NHL over concussions. And it'll look even better if the league can say the PA fought against it anywhere along the way.