The NHL’s lack of regard for optics is no more evident than it is in the way it runs its oxymoronic Department of Player Safety. Surely when the league makes a decision to hire George Parros to be part of the department, one person’s hand must shoot up and that person reminds everyone that would make DOPS a little top heavy with former players who, well, didn’t have the safety of their opponents in mind when they played. Or maybe not. Perhaps they just don’t care.
This much we know. With the addition of Parros, the department is now occupied by three former players, along with department head Stephane Quintal and Chris Pronger. For those of you keeping score at home, that makes three players who totalled 4,002 career penalty minutes and 293 fights in the NHL. Pronger was suspended eight times when he played and Parros, while never fined or suspended during his career, fought 169 times and owns a clothing line that goes by the name Violent Gentlemen.
Listen, we get the whole thing about hiring a safecracker to build a better safe. After all, the FBI regularly employs hackers as cyber special agents. There’s nothing wrong with having some presence in the disciplinary department that represents the sensibilities of players who play the game physically and can get into the minds of the people with whom they’ll be dealing. As Parros put it when he was hired, “I feel that if anybody out there knows how to walk the line, it’s me.”
But having these three guys responsible for player safety would be tantamount to establishing a committee to reduce goaltending equipment and filling it with the likes of Garth Snow, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the Michelin Man. It would be like trying to open up the game offensively by striking a committee led by Jacques Lemaire, Dave King and Rod Langway. Or a group committed to cut down shot blocking and having Craig Ludwig, Dan Girardi and Kris Russell on the case.
It wasn’t always this way. After all, the current incarnation of the department was led by Brendan Shanahan, who played the game on the edge of the rulebook, but also had the sensibilities of a skill player. Rob Blake was also on the committee, but left to join the Los Angeles Kings management team and was replaced by Brian Leetch. But when Leetch left, he was replaced by Pronger and now it has added Parros. And all of this is without even considering that Pronger is still technically an active player who is still drawing a regular paycheque from the Arizona Coyotes. See what we mean about optics? The league doesn’t even seem to think it’s a problem that a player can be an employee of the league and an individual team at the same time.
We also get that the league wants to employ players who can add something of substance to the game. Parros was intelligent enough to go to Princeton and he was once named the fourth-smartest professional athlete. But his degree is in economics. Surely he could have worked in another department, one perhaps devoted to business development. Because, no matter how much the NHL tries to justify moves like this one, it simply continues to reinforce its philosophy that a huge part of the game is the culture of violence. When Pronger or Quintal or Parros is faced with a decision when it comes to meting out discipline, with whose sensibilities do you think they’re going to be aligned? They can’t help but come into their decisions with a certain amount of bias based on the way they played the game and the way they feel it should be played. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but where is the balance when it comes to filling the department with ex-players. Martin St-Louis and Brad Richards, two players who won the Lady Byng Trophy during their careers, have both recently retired and would have been excellent additions to a department whose primary objective should be to protect the league’s star players.
The NHL, it cannot be disputed, wants to have a certain amount of violence and mayhem in its game. Players won’t hear of taking fighting out of the game because it would mean a certain ilk of player would be without work. Suspensions, in comparison to other sports, are ridiculously light and seem to be arrived at with no set formula, no rhyme or reason. Players who are employed to keep the temperature down out on the ice are often the ones who are most responsible for turning it up, thereby justifying their existence with the same justification as a Mafia protection racket.
And again, we get all that. But in a department whose mandate is supposed to be devoted to keeping players safe, having three players with more than 1,000 career penalties each, two of whom fought more than 100 times during their career, is just a bit too much of the same thing.