The NHL’s department of player safety (DOPS) has long been a controversial aspect of hockey’s governance system. However in recent years, the DOPS has become a complete and utter failure, and one of the many reasons the NHL lags behind all other professional sports leagues in North America.
This goes beyond the predatory and completely intentional hit that Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele delivered to Jake Evans on Wednesday night. This is a systemic problem with the set of values that the NHL believes in. Since George Parros’ appointment to the position in September of 2017, the league has experienced a wave of inconsistency and acceptance of the violent action that plagues hockey. Since his arrival, Parros has dished out over 110 suspensions for incidents that range from viscous slashes, headshots, knee on knee collisions, or the disgrace that was the Tom Wilson incident that occurred a few weeks ago.
There are three issues with the way the DOPS conducts its business. Firstly, the way in which the rules are written and applied. Secondly, George Parros himself. And last, but not least, the culture that surrounds the NHL, and the way they conduct their business.
The problems surrounding the DOPS are not the number of suspensions, but the decisions surrounding why they are assessed. In many aspects, the NHL is far less advanced when it comes to the well being of their players. This is due to many factors, especially how the rules of the NHL are defined. When assessing whether or not a hit is suspendable, the DOPS looks at a series of regulations that outline what constitutes a legal check. According to the rulebook, charging (what most media define as what Scheifele did to Evans) is defined as “a player who skates, jumps into or charges an opponent in any manner. Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” The discretion of whether or not to assess a minor, major, or game misconduct is up to the discretion of the on-ice officials, and as the hockey world saw, Scheifele was given a major penalty.
Without delving into the horror show that is NHL officiating, the right call was made on the ice. The problem is how the rules are applied when it comes to supplementary discipline. Since the rules of what defines a major infraction are so vague, it is difficult to apply these rules across the board. While the NHL does state that multiple factors are taken into account when a suspension is handed down, it is very unclear how it is done. For that, I do not blame Parros. However, Parros, in my opinion, is not the right person for this job.
When Parros was hired for a position in the department in the summer of 2016, I was excited for the direction that I assumed he would move the DOPS into. What I, alongside many others, believed at the time was that a former player like Parros could judge the suspendable acts from the perspective of someone who played on the edge. Make light of Parros’ career all you want, but the man played over 450 games in the NHL, that is nothing to scoff at. This is without including the fact that Parros is a very smart person academically. Despite making his NHL career through fighting and protecting the team's skilled players, Parros is an alumnus of Princeton University’s economics program. During his four years studying and playing at Princeton, he also served as captain during his senior year during the 2002-03 season.
Although hindsight is 20/20, Parros was clearly not the right person for the job. You would think a player who was knocked out cold in a fight with Colton Orr would understand the importance of minimizing the amount of risk to a player’s long term health. The inaction of the last four years from Parros and the DOPS has directly compromised the integrity of the DOPS and more importantly the NHL.
Looking back on the events of May 3rd-6th surrounding Tom Wilson’s violent attack on Artemi Panarin, and the New York Rangers calling out the NHL and Parros by calling into question his ability to properly run the department, they clearly made their position clear to the league.
When the Rangers were fined $250,000 for what the NHL called “unfair” comments to Parros, it was interpreted as the league attempting to fine the Rangers into silence. As soon as Parros was named directly, his authority came under scrutiny, as well as the entire DOPS. Until Parros proves to the NHL’s fanbase that he is able to do his job, he will be scrutinized across the hockey world.
There is, however, one final problem with the way the NHL handles its disciplinary actions. This has nothing to do with the rules, player safety or Parros. It is no secret that the NHL is the least popular of the four major North American sports. Despite franchises located in both the Southwestern and Southeastern United States, hockey is still largely a regional sport that is vastly dominated by audiences in Canada and the Northern U.S. Since the NHL is largely irrelevant across large swaths of the U.S, the NHL must market the sport in the best way they know how, the physicality of the game. It is no coincidence that the May 6th game between the Capitals and Rangers was a major boost to the NHL’s ratings and received coverage from every major sports publication across the U.S and Canada.
The NHL lives for the publicity that line brawls bring them, especially when the teams involved are U.S based. As hockey is the only non-combat sport that allows fighting, the NHL markets it heavily and encourages the fact that due to the “code” , fights will happen as a form of revenge. I don’t believe the NHL directly tells Parros and the DOPS when and when not to suspend players, but I do believe there are internal discussions on what a suspension will do to ratings.
With the DOPS making the correct judgment in the case of Scheifele, perhaps a corner has been turned. However, despite the correct judgment being made, there are still serious issues of consistency. Whether it is Ryan Reaves, Nazem Kadri, or Tom Wilson, there are still serious issues in the DOPS. Until the priority shifts from ratings to the legitimate protection of the players, events like the Wilson affair will keep occurring.
By Ben Fraser | Sens Nation Hockey