Time's ripe for NHL to institute firm supplemental discipline code

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Like a brother-in-law who has been sleeping in the spare bedroom, an e-mail is eternal. Missives dashed off, in haste and in pique, exist forever in some sort of cosmic in-box, outlasting the emotion and situation of a moment, outdistancing the NHL refereeing career of Dean Warren.

For those of you who have come in late this week, Warren is the ref who claimed he was fired for his activism in NHL Officials Association. The NHL said he was fired for reasons of competence. The e-mails in question were submitted as part of the labor relations case in which Warren was fighting what he saw as a wrongful dismissal. They were first mentioned in print a year ago -- the NHL was fully cognizant of them -- but they were brilliantly resuscitated and decoded on Sunday on blog mc79hockey.com, written by Toronto lawyer Tyler Dellow.

You can check out his blog for the complete e-mail trail between Campbell, the NHL's vice-president for violence, and Stephen Walkom, now a referee but then the league's director of officiating. But to give you the Reader's Digest abridged version, Campbell was upset at some calls against his son, Gregory, who was then with the Florida Panthers but now plays for the Boston Bruins, especially a high stick against Marc Savard, who, Dellow deciphers, is the little "fake artist" of Campbell's e-mails.

(The preceding summary is like saying Moby Dick is a book about an ocean voyage, but you get the rough idea.)

And Campbell's rough ideas are expressed roughly, in scabrous language. So now we know that in addition to being a hockey dad, which is how Campbell described himself to TSN, a Canadian sports network, on Monday, he types in the language of the locker room.

There are, of course, other issues here beyond the unfiltered look into the inner workings of one man's mind -- if not the league itself.

The first is Campbell's ability to articulate. He is not exactly George Will at a keyboard. Fair enough. He was a defensemen, then an assistant and head coach. He is a hockey guy. Maybe he is the hockey guy, which allows him to doggedly continue in a position in which no telephone call from a general manager or owner will tell him to have a nice day. But beyond the hockey masters he serves, Campbell also has to be able to sell his decisions, and the league's position, to the hockey public. And for all his other attributes, Campbell is not a slick salesman.

Consider the early tumult over the new Rule 48 regarding blindside hits to the head. The guess here is that the kvetching over the rule, and its accompanying supplementary discipline, can be partly attributable to Campbell's inability to spell it out and delineate all its permutations. Of course, everyone always looks at the length of an NHL suspension like the Three Bears' porridge: we decide if it's too hot, too cold, or just right. But given the nearly unprecedented caviling over the lateral hit rule, Campbell more than ever has left people with the impression that he practices dartboard justice, which is unfortunate because Campbell works hard at understanding the nuance of every play.

Maybe he works too hard. In trying make sense of a nearly impossible job -- just ask his predecessor, current Toronto GM Brian Burke -- Campbell parses every play, looking to differentiate one from another. Of course, no two plays, like no two snowflakes, are exactly alike. Campbell needs a framework -- other than the precedents he has set with previous rulings. His raw typing has at least one thing going for it: it has provided the perfect opening for the NHL to tweak the system by codifying all supplementary discipline. This would take the ... well, not guessing, really, because that word would demean the honest work the hockey operations department tries to do ... but maybe the, um, capriciousness out of it.

So, in conjunction with general managers and the players association, NHL hockey operations should come up with a written set of standards. Call them Dellow's Code, in honor of the intrepid blogger. Two or three games for this. Five to eight games for that. Ten-plus for that. Give Campbell, and his successors, some wiggle room, a range in which to render a decision, because life and hockey aren't always black and white. Indeed every play seems to have extenuating circumstances. The NHL just should not continue to allow extenuating circumstances to be the rock upon which it builds its disciplinary church.

I like Colin Campbell. Most people in hockey do. His e-mails might be embarrassing, but they compose a wonderful snapshot of a man who can be blunt, profane and sardonic as well as diligent and compassionate. Campbell is capable of being many things at once. Like all of us, I suspect.

One other thing: Campbell writes that he hates "soft calls." Since the changes in enforcement standards post-lockout, which have improved the NHL game, maybe a third of penalties are "soft" calls. He should be used to them by now.

You might not have noticed the earth shaking, but on Tuesday Marcus Vinnerborg -- a Swede - became the first non-North American to referee an NHL game, working Dallas vs. Anaheim with Paul Devorski.

Ah, Europeans. We buy their cars. We eat their cheeses and drink their wines. We used to go to the movies to watch their films until Bergman just got too dense for our tastes. Now we have evolved to the point where we trust them enough to keep an eye on Steve Ott, which is a leading indicator of globalization.

Although the International Ice Hockey Federation trumpeted Vinnerborg's debut as the "last bastion" to fall in the integration of Europeans into the NHL, it conveniently ignored the obvious. There has never been a European GM in the league, maybe because the relatively brief tenures of two European-born and trained head coaches -- Alpo Suhonen in Chicago (29 wins in 2000-01 amid claims that he was running a country club) and Ivan Hlinka in Pittsburgh (86 games, including an 0-4 start in 2001-02) -- were deemed failures.

So who will be the first European GM, assuming that barrier falls in the next two decades?

If you had posed the question 10 years ago, the answer probably would have been Anders Hedberg, the brilliant winger from the Swedish port city of Ornskoldsvik, the world's per capita hockey capital (Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, et. al.). Hedberg, who starred for WHA Winnipeg and the New York Rangers, was an assistant GM in Toronto from 1997 to 1999 and later Ottawa's director of player personnel from 2002-07. He is now the Rangers' chief European scout. He is 59, and his time has passed.

The second choice would have been Hedberg's predecessor with the Senators, Jarmo Kekalainen, who left Ottawa in 2002 to join St. Louis as assistant GM and director of amateur scouting. He is now GM at Jokerit, in Finland. He is 44 and still a possibility if an owner is willing to take a leap of faith.

But the best guess is someone else with an Ottawa connection. Indeed, the man is still playing. Daniel Alfredsson, the Senators' captain, could turn into precisely that kind of coveted executive if the NHL opens its minds and doors just a crack wider.

Alfredsson is conspicuously smart. He has worked with the NHLPA. He knows the inside of a boardroom. He attended the World Hockey Summit in Toronto last summer. Unlike most Swedish players, he plans to live in Canada after retirement and has expressed interest in taking a leadership role in the game. If he gets the kind of training that Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman received in Detroit after he retired from the Red Wings, Alfredsson could end up running a team. Maybe he won't fast track like Yzerman -- a little more of the Swede in him might have to erode to the point where he is viewed as a certifiable North American (with a slight accent) -- but certainly he would be a prize catch for any organization in the erstwhile National House League.

"I think there will be (European GMs) at some point," Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero wrote in an e-mail. "Jarmo is close, if he (wants) to be. But they will need to (already) be in an NHL organization and not coming directly from Europe, in my opinion."