NHL kangaroo courts fine for relieving players of their cash

Tuesday January 19th, 2016

It was approaching Christmas in the early 1990s when Brad May first discovered the wonky world of NHL justice. Then a 21-year-old forward with the Buffalo Sabres, May had gone shopping during a road trip in Boston and bought himself a black Samsonite suitcase, a big one with wheels. He had never seen a suitcase with wheels before. Neither had his teammates. No one on the Sabres owned one, either, which made May particularly proud about what he judged to be a prudent discovery.

At least, until his teammates got wind of his purchase and levied their punishment on the second-year pro: $100, non-negotiable, owed immediately.

“Because I was too young to carry around a bag with wheels,” May says, still with a hint of disbelief. “How about that? I’m the smartest guy on the hockey team. I buy a suitcase with wheels. I’m the first one to do it. And they fine me $100. And now every person and their dog has a suitcase with wheels.”

Unfair? Maybe. Par for the course, even today? Absolutely.

During the past few weeks, players from a dozen NHL teams were interviewed for this piece and all confirmed the existence of some form of a fine system among their ranks. But everyone also requested anonymity. Their explanations ranged from the desire to avoid publicly discussing money to the oft-cited “what-happens-in-here-stays-in-here” code of NHL locker rooms. As one Metropolitan Division forward put it, “I don't know why it’s not more public, but there’s a reason no guys speak up about it.”

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It’s a shame, really. The stories are there. Several years ago, one Eastern Conference team established a dedicated bank account and bought a Square credit card reader to facilitate transactions, a practice since passed down to its minor league affiliate. For one Central Division club, falling down in warm-ups merits payment of $300. For another, posting certain photos on Twitter—kissing one’s girlfriend, for instance—invariably draws the ire of the Fine Master, the player trusted with collecting payment. That same team once docked someone for eating an apple in the hot tub.

Often inherited from former teammates, the position of Fine Master carries weight, but no consistent description. To enforce its fines, the team that has its own bank account employs a fourth-liner and a third-pairing defenseman who keep a running list on their iPhones. “I’m the muscle,” the fourth-liner says, adding that banging on hotel doors was not above him. Another Metro club has its fund run by an Olympian, All-Star and alternate captain who is unafraid to pester teammates like he might opponents. “I’m not awkward about it,” he says. “I just say, ‘Pay up, give me money, give it to me.’ I’ll just hound them until they do.”

Most, if not all, of the money gets kicked back into the team after the season ends, either for parties or four-figure tips for support staffers, like athletic trainers and equipment managers. Leftover funds sometimes end up serving charitable purposes too. The aforementioned Twitter-regulating club used its money to donate iPads to a local children’s hospital over the holidays. Tardiness to flights or bus rides, improper dress on the road, and stepping on the logo in the middle of the locker room are the most common infractions, but much is up to the discretion of the Fine Master.

A Western Conference team located in the United States, for instance, once called a closed-door meeting to determine who had put Canadian dollars into the collection pot for tipping trainers. “No one fessed up to it,” one player familiar with the investigation says. “Everyone had to be in the locker room. We were going through who’s likely to do something like that, who wouldn’t do it, then the guy ended up confessing.”

The resulting fine? “Double payment, American funds.”

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Consider the operation of one Pacific Division team, which gathered its in-house leadership group during training camp for an important task: updating its criteria for fines. The result was a one-page list with 20-some rules, posted in the players’ lounge so no one can claim ignorance. The group is often lenient on first-time offenders, deals in straight cash, and usually collects once a month.

Some rules on the list, like dress-code violations—DCVs, in team shorthand—are standard league-wide. Others, like the statute against throwing utensils, knives, and forks in response to zingers at rookie dinners, are more obscure. Still others are nebulous in nature, like what one player on the team calls its “common sense rule,” violators abstractly judged by the leadership council.

Then there is the amendment concerning the performance of certain ... duties.

“If you don’t flush when you’re at the s----er and you leave something in there, that’s a $500 fine,” the player, a veteran forward of over 700 NHL games, says. “And guys take it seriously. We only have three s----ers at home and on the road, maybe only two in the locker room, so you make sure it’s always nice and clean in there.”

Once, when that same team encountered an infuriating rash of minor penalties for too many men on the ice, the leadership council called a courtroom session to try the offending parties. “If the guy’s able to recruit a good lawyer in the locker room and he’s got good points, he’ll be able to win his case,” the veteran forward says. Like fines, kangaroo court is a common behind-the-scenes practice. Another team called a session after one player struck a teammate in the face with a puck during warmups, then refused to accept blame. He was found guilty on all counts.

“We’ve tried a few guys with some kangaroo court cases, just to figure out some incidents in two-touch soccer before the game,” an Eastern Conference veteran of four different teams says. “One guy, if he gets a little aggressive or throws the ball, (gives) verbal abuse [or] physical, sometimes guys just leave the game. Guys don’t like that, because it takes away from the game. There’s been times we’ve had to fine some guys or suspend them from the soccer match.”

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Since this veteran never participates in the pregame soccer kick-around, he often serves as the impartial judge for the kangaroo court. Plaintiffs bring charges to him and he schedules hearings for practice days at the team facility. The team takes its two-touch seriously, ranking players based on their success, so the trials are fittingly intense in their competition. Lawyers are hired, cases are presented, a sentence is suggested, and a verdict is levied.

“They’ll say a guy owes a couple hundred bucks and he’s going to have a yellow card for the next three games, or something,” the veteran magistrate says. “They’ll come with what they think he should get. Each guy gets to bring in a guy if they want to defend themselves, or they can have somebody with him. Some of the trainers that help out will try the case with me. We just do it to have fun on off days or a practice day or whatever. We do it to kill some time.”

In other cases, defendants receive their fate from a jury of their peers. “Putting money on the board,” as it’s known around the league, is the common practice of writing an amount of money on the locker room dry-erase board during pregame. Then, if the team wins, the player must pay up. Consider it a standings-inspired form of enforcement, guilt determined by the scoreboard.

Reasons for having to put money on the board run the gamut from simply returning to your hometown for a game to reaching a career milestone to the unforgiveable offense of having family in the stands. One player recounted the time his sister made the supportive—and oblivious to the financial consequences her brother would suffer—decision to create a sign and hold it up in the front row. Some teammates noticed and wham, ka-ching! the player was relieved of a few of his Benjamins.

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“Let’s say your wife’s on the road,” the Fine Master of a Central Division team says. “You have to put up $500 on the board. You know what I mean? It’s a little more fun. If you win (the game), you have to pay it to the pot.” Rather than charging fines, this player’s team almost exclusively traffics in putting money on the board. Fall in warmups? Three hundred bucks. Arrive late to a meeting? Five hundred. “That’s how we discipline the guys,” he says. “If it’s something really bad, you obviously have to pay the fine. But we have a system where you have to put it on the board.”

The actual purpose of these practices is up for debate. One Western Conference head coach whose team employs a fine fund says he has “mixed emotions” about the subject, and is concerned it might divide players over money rather than build camaraderie. But an Eastern Conference GM, a former defenseman whose teams in the 1970s held their share of kangaroo courts, believes the fines have merit. “It helps you develop your team chemistry,” he says. “If a team doesn’t care, they probably don’t do those things. If they’ve got a bunch of guys who don’t give a s---, that stuff gets passed by, but if you care and have a good group, they’re not going to let that slide.”

Or in rare circumstances they will concoct penalties without any monetary value—or reason—at all. May recalls a teammate trying to defend himself in kangaroo court a few years after the Buffalo luggage episode. The player incited the tribunal’s ire by babbling too much. “They were like, ‘Listen, that’s enough,’” says May, who is now a television analyst. “Two guys got up and they shaved his head right in the middle of the locker room.”

Just call it the NHL’s version of “taking a haircut.”

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