Dustin Byfuglien (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Many fans and media were irate in the wake of Dustin Byfuglien's four-game suspension for a cross-check on the Rangers' J.T. Miller. And while it's true the suspension wasn't harsh enough, don't fault the NHL Department of Player Safety for that. The league's team owners and the NHLPA are the real power-brokers here and deserve the blame.
The instant Dustin Byfuglien's four-game suspension for a vicious cross-check on Rangers center J.T. Miller was announced late Thursday afternoon, hockey fans and some media types took to social media to vent anger and frustration over the brevity of it. And it wasn't just Blueshirts supporters; in this era of heightened awareness of head injuries and their long-term effects on players' post-career quality of life, an ever-increasing number of people agree that actions like Byfuglien's are absolutely unacceptable and warrant a severe punishment that causes NHLers to think twice before doing something so reckless. They didn't get that with a four-game ban.
Believe me, nobody agrees with those folks more than I do. However, there's a group of fans out there who direct their wrath over the league's consistently underwhelming suspensions at the NHL Department of Player Safety. Those people were out in full force in the wake of the Byfuglien verdict. And those people are wrong. You can disagree with the choices of chief disciplinarian Stephane Quintal or anyone in Player Safety, but attaching primary blame to him or his department is like faulting police for laws they enforce; if you want to effect change and put pressure on the appropriate parties for the long-established leniency of the league, you should look at the two groups chiefly responsible for soft punishments: the first is NHL team owners, and the second is the NHL Players' Association.
Through their collective bargaining agreement, the league and players' union decide the range and severity of supplemental discipline. The league and players' union had a glorious chance during the most recent negotiations in 2013 to sit down and hash out far harsher punishments than the ones that governed the game up until that point. And you know what happened instead: the lockout became primarily a mechanism for owners to squeeze players for a bigger share of Hockey-Related Revenue. That was the priority, and to a degree, that's understandable; the league still, after all, is a business. However, sorting out the percentages of HRR didn't mean both sides also couldn't have agreed to tougher sanctions for irresponsible on-ice behavior.
Now, there are some legitimate reasons why owners and players would be reticent to insist on a more rigid, less forgiving discipline system: players have a limited earning window, and giving owners and the league the ability to take away large portions of their salary was never going to be appealing, especially when there's no corresponding fine or deterrent to team coaches, executives and owners. And we know how loathe owners are to surrender potential profits.
But if owners truly are "partners" with players, why shouldn't they bear some responsibility for employing a player who does something egregious? Pens owner Mario Lemieux suggested as much a few years back – and the principle has already been adopted for the NHL's approach to embellishment: coaches are fined on a sliding scale for repeat-offenders under their employ, so why not extend that to other areas the league needs to address, and include owners in the group of people who have to pay up? Something tells me you'd see an abrupt shift in organizations' tolerance levels for stupidity if they had to cut checks in large amounts.
Although it's true harsher player fines and suspensions never will be popular with players, NHLPA leadership can't be dissuaded by that angle of the argument. Instead, they have to sell players on the benefits of a tougher disciplinary approach. Here's what I'd say to NHLers: Do you want to pay an increased financial price in the short-term after the league truly cracks down, or would you prefer to not deal directly with the problem and potentially pay an unthinkable price when an opponent breaks your neck one day in an incident such as the one involving Byfuglien? Do you want to speak up now and take a stand for real accountability for dangerous acts, or do you want to spend your retirement with your family laboring under the effects of severe neurological damage because enough wasn't done over the years to curb concussions? That's the stark choice the NHLPA faces, and despite the fact executive director Donald Fehr maintains the union's job is to serve at the direction of the membership, at some point every union has to prioritize the health of its members above their earning capacity. If you've got to die on a hill, you could pick far worse hills than this.
Remember, the league can be extremely distrustful and punitive when it chooses to. Owners do not operate on an honor system, nor are they allowed to seek out and exact physical revenge on each other after perceived slights. The salary cap was implemented ostensibly because Bettman knew owners couldn't be trusted to sign players to reasonable contracts and keep salary inflation at a manageable level. And years before the most recent labor war, Bettman passed league laws that gave him the ability to fine owners hundreds of thousands of dollars if they acted out of accordance with his expectations.
What awful act could an owner commmit to wind up paying a seven-figure fine, you ask? It's not having one of the owner's players carry out a brutal and needless assault on an opponent. Rather, it's for speaking publicly during a labor negotiation. Try and rationalize that. In Bettman's NHL, you can have a million-dollar hammer dropped on you for words that come out of your mouth, but there is literally no physical act of aggression an employee of yours can commit to get you fined a single cent.
If hockey is going to change and be more responsible, that has to change. The Department of Player Safety acts as owners and players direct them to act – and if players are expected to alter their on-ice approach in the name of a safer work environment, the men who profit off their physical sacrifices ought to share in the blame.