NEW YORK – The 2013-14 NHL season isn’t a month old, but there have already been 14 player suspensions for a total of 51 regular-season games lost.
“We’ve had some bad hits so far,” said Brendan Shanahan, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, speaking the morning before John Scott added another hearing on his docket for a head-shot on Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins.
Some of these suspensions have been substantial: Five games for Maxim Lapierre, Cody McLeod, Ryan Garbutt and Zack Kassian. In some of those cases, fans wanted longer suspensions that didn’t materialize. All were capped at five games by the NHL.
This led to some understandable speculation about what determined the length of those bans. Under the new CBA, players were given the right to appeal suspensions that totaled six games or more to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and then with a neutral arbitrator.
That’s the process playing out with Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres at the moment, with Bettman having heard his appeal.
Has the potential for the NHLPA appeal to someone outside of the hockey world intimidated Shanahan and the NHL, keeping suspensions at under five games so as not to trigger the appeals process?
“We truly don’t rule that way", Shanahan said.
“We think five games is a significant suspension.”
He said the NHL offers in-person hearings on many hits because there’s the potential for a ban five games or greater, but not because it’s what they expect.
Here’s how it works: A clip of a controversial hit is sent around the NHL player safety brain trust within 10 minutes of the play occurring in a game. Initial impressions of the hit are made.
“In that time, if we think this is something that could rise to four or five games, at that point maybe six, we don’t box ourselves in by saying it’s only a phone hearing,” said Shanahan.
In the in-person hearing, Shanahan and his group take in the evidence and then determine if that information increases or decreases the suspension they’ve considered. So far, that's led to a series of 5-game suspensions.
He points to other suspensions to players like Duncan Keith and Andy Sutton that went five games, well before the CBA appeals process started.
So Shanahan says the NHL doesn’t consider the appeals process when doling out suspensions.
But he’s considered it, and what it means for his department; and Shanahan welcomes the check and balance.
“This might sound … I don’t care how it sounds, because it’s the truth: I actually support this CBA negotiating right that the players have. I’m not at all worried about it. I don’t try to avoid it. I think it’s ultimately a good thing, and a positive thing, if it’s done with honesty,” he said.
“The reality is that if someone’s trying to do this with honesty and sees a flaw in our work, and we’ve made a mistake, I wouldn’t want a player to pay for our mistake if we’ve made one.”
As Kaleta is expected to test the appeals process for his head-shot on Jack Johnson – he’s a repeat offender, but there was no injury on the play – Shanahan has had to consider how the Department of Player Safety will handle a successful appeal.
For example: If Kaleta gets 10 games from the NHL, but the neutral arbitrator knocks it down to five games, will Shanahan still view the suspension as 10 games when considering it in subsequent hearings involving the player? Or would it officially be treated as five games?
Shanahan said he’s not sure how the NHL will treat successful appeals as precedent.
“It would all depend on the reasons that he brought to light for why he’s downplaying or changing it,” he said.
“I hope it’s not that he doesn’t think hits to the head are as important as we do.”