The Last Word: Let’s up the ante on suspensions

Linking a player’s suspension to the length of time the victim is sidelined might have a more profound impact on the culprits who routinely cross the line.
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If Garnet Hathaway wasn’t spitting mad, he should have been. In fact, he actually said, “It was tough to swallow.” We’re not making that up. He said that.

Hathaway, of course, was talking about the three-game suspension he received for spitting on Anaheim’s Erik Gudbranson. Responding to a sucker punch during a scrum in mid-November, Hathaway hocked a loogie that found its way onto Gudbranson’s face. Commissioner Gary Bettman brought down a three-game suspension for what was described as “intent to injure.” The league was in uncharted territory here. It’s not as though it has ever had experience dealing with players spitting at each other or licking each other’s faces or anything.

If Hathaway really wanted to earn his suspension, he might have instead waited until another point in the game when he could cross-check Gudbranson in the back repeatedly and knock him out of action for four to six weeks. Chances are, he wouldn’t have received more than three games. Perhaps as few as two. Or he might have wanted to wait until Gudbranson was carrying the puck, then nail him with a forearm shiver in the face. That for sure would have only been worth two games instead of three.

And that, hockey fans, is where we are when it comes to discipline in the NHL. You have George ‘The Violent Gentleman’ Parros, owner of 158 fights, 1,092 penalty minutes and a fights-to-goals ratio of 8.8:1 making disciplinary decisions when it comes to player safety and almost nothing codified when it comes to the length of suspensions.

Sometimes it seems ‘The Violent Gentleman’ watches an offense and then spins the NHL’s Wheel of Justice™ in order to come up with a penalty. Now that might not be completely fair to Parros and the people who work for him, but the wild inconsistencies in sentences make you wonder sometimes.

Nothing bore that out more than the outrageously light four-game sentence that Robert Bortuzzo of St. Louis received for cross-checking Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson. Bortuzzo cross-checked Arvidsson into the net, then once he realized he was getting a minor penalty, decided to take his frustrations out again on Arvidsson, drilling the shaft of his stick downward into Arvidsson’s spine/ribs/kidneys, a sixth or seventh defenseman knocking a first-line forward out of the Predators’ lineup for up to six weeks.

But here’s the thing. Not only was Bortuzzo a repeat offender, he had already been fined twice for vicious cross-checks earlier in his career. And for that he got four games? A few nights later, young Rasmus Dahlin was knocked out of the Buffalo lineup with a concussion after taking a vicious open-ice elbow to the head from Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak. Yet another case of a depth player taking out a front-line performer.

‘The Violent Gentleman’ was sure to note in explaining Bortuzzo’s four-game suspension and Cernak’s two-gamer that players were hurt as a result of the offense and that factored into the length of the punishment. But how do we know that? And how much was it factored in?

Do you see where we’re going with this? In many cases, suspensions are not a deterrent in the NHL, not only because they’re ridiculously light, but also because a player knows that even if he hurts an opponent, there will really be no tie-in between the punishment and the amount of time the player on the receiving end is out of the lineup. That has to change.

If Arvidsson were to miss four weeks, that amounts to 13 games. If it were six weeks, that would be 18. The number 15 falls in the middle of that, which would have been a punishment for Bortuzzo that fit the crime. Dahlin was diagnosed with a concussion, and they’re all different. He could be out two days, two weeks, two months or two years. With nothing tying the length of the suspension to the injury, the punishment looks even softer.

See, here’s the thing. Hockey players hate uncertainty. Generally speaking, they want to know exactly what their roles are and what is expected of them. They crave routine and predictability. So you want to cut down on the egregious acts of violence? (And there has never been any tangible evidence to suggest the NHL actually wants that, but just play along with us here.) Then throw some chaos into the occasion.

Let’s say Bortuzzo’s suspension was tied in with Arvidsson’s absence. Let’s say because of that, Bortuzzo’s suspension was 15 games. He lost about $67,000 on a salary of $1.38 million because of his four-game ban. If it had been 15 games, Bortuzzo would have been more than $250,000 lighter in the wallet. Without being inside Bortuzzo’s head, you’d have to think he’d have thought twice if in the back of his mind he knew there was a chance he was going to have to sit that long and lose that amount of money.

Perhaps the NHL could introduce a new system whereby players who are suspended for an act where it is deemed there is an intent to injure have their suspensions tied to the amount of time the player is out of the lineup, up to eight weeks. If the NHL Players’ Association truly cares about the victims as much as it does the perps, it would have to agree to that. If not, shame on them.

It’s clear the Wheel of Justice™ is broken. It’s time for a new approach.

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