You know, you really want to believe the hockey establishment when it says it cares about the safety and welfare of its players. You really do. But they make it so, so difficult, like all the time. You have an NHL commissioner who still refuses to acknowledge any link between repeated head injuries and long-term brain diseases. You have a league, a team and a players’ association who believe it’s perfectly acceptable to have a COVID-ravaged team that hasn’t played in three weeks to play two games within 22 hours with almost no practice time, and is only shamed into changing that plan when a veteran player speaks up about it.
You also have a referee in Kevin Pollock who watches an 18-second exchange between Zach Hyman of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets defensemen Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort where all three of them are repeatedly guilty of about half the infractions in the rulebook. The exchange ends with Pionk viciously slashing Hyman in the back of the legs and Hyman responding by taking a two-handed swing at Pionk that appeared to hit the defenseman in the face.
Not sure what was more alarming about it, the fact that Pollock, a referee who has worked 1,400 career games and two Stanley Cup finals, saw Hyman’s infraction as a two-minute high-sticking penalty, or the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which deemed the action to be worthy of a $5,000 fine, which represents 0.22 percent of his annual salary. Both are egregious, ghastly and shameful.
As everyone knows, the NHL’s player safety department is known as DOPS. It is led by George (The Violent Gentleman) Parros and is overrun by people who made a lot of money as players by pushing the boundaries of the rulebook and punching other people in the face. From now on, your trusty correspondent has bestowed a new name on the department. From now on, DOPS will be known in this corner by its new name, Dominion to Offend in Plain Sight™.
It’s uncanny really. How a veteran referee can watch the exchange between Hyman and Pionk and come to the conclusion that it deserves only a two-minute penalty boggles the mind. And how a ‘player safety department’ can see one of its constituents come down with two hands on the stick to the facial area of an opponent and do so little is nothing short of incredible. But we really should not be surprised. In fact, there was little to no umbrage taken over the exchange, either when it happened or after the game. Neither of the analysts from either team questioned the call, nor was it even brought in post-game interviews. So, let’s give the guy a fine and move on.
Not including escrow and deferred payments, Hyman will receive a little more than $19,000 per day this season. So the league essentially fined him a couple of hours’ worth of wages for attempting to club an opponent over the head. Does anyone really think that kind of punishment is going to stop Hyman or others from doing similar things in the future? In reality, Hyman and other players are going to look at it as underwriting their brands. If Zach Hyman is going to carve out that kind of space for himself on the ice and pay the equivalent of pocket change as a result, his financial planner couldn’t come up with a better long-term investment in his career.
Even though Pionk clutched at his face after the slash, it was unclear by video whether Hyman actually made contact above the neck. Pionk certainly didn’t seem any worse for wear, since he played the next one minute and seven seconds before Kyle Connor scored an empty-net goal on the power play. There was no injury on the play on either side.
But here’s the thing. The hockey establishment goes on about honor and this ‘code’ that nobody ever seems to be able to fully explain. We really don’t know what it is, but we’re pretty sure that taking a two-handed swing with your stick at somebody’s face violates it. And here’s where the game gets bogged down. These kinds of things have happened many times before with the player involved facing little to no consequences. So how and when do you finally come down on a player who is guilty of the same thing without looking as though you’re cherry picking?
That’s the main reason why the NHL rulebook is just a guide and not a standard. We keep wondering why that’s the case and the NHL keeps creating more precedents. Then, one day when one of those swings connects and a guy splits his opponent’s face open we’ll all sit back and click our tongues in outrage.
Carry on, then…