How suspensions happen: THN goes inside the NHL player safety war room
Department of player safety czar Stephane Quintal, front, oversees a night of games with a team including Patrick Burke, second from bottom. and Damian Echevarrieta, top right. (Photo by Matt Larkin)
How suspensions happen: THN goes inside the NHL player safety war room
Everyone has an opinion on how the NHL handles suspensions – but how does the entire process actually work? THN spent a night in the New York war room with league's head player safety honchos to find out.
It’s February 18, 2015. Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller finds himself in a frighteningly familiar predicament. He speeds into Ottawa’s neutral zone, stretching out to receive a pass…and spots his old buddy, Senators D-man Eric Gryba, bearing down on him, forearms at chin height. Violent impact. And then–
Timeout. Eller and Gryba freeze as their torsos separate. Remember what Zack Morris used to do on
Saved by the Bell,
locking everyone around him in tableau when he had a predicament to solve? That’s what’s happened here, but swap Bayside High for the NHL Department of Player Safety’s war room. Eller and Gryba stretch across four television screens, paused mid-game so the league’s experts can debate the collision’s legality. Every set of eyes and ears perks up in the room, because everyone present knows the context. Gryba KO’d Eller with an illegal headshot in the 2013 playoffs, ending Eller’s season and earning Gryba a two-game suspension. Another run-in between the two lights up four criteria on the NHL’s no-no board: emotional narrative, potential for repeat offense, potential for injury and a potentially illegal hit. If Gryba has indeed caught Eller in the head again, Gryba has every strike against him and can hang up his skates for a while. Alas, a room-wide review reveals he hit Eller clean in the chest this time. Crisis averted. Game unpaused. That moment encapsulates the busy life inside the war room, which screens every second of every game all season. The department, led by senior vice-president Stephane Quintal, vice-president Damian Echevarrieta and director Patrick Burke, has invited THN to the New York office for a full night’s slate of games. The mutual goal: improving the media's understanding of exactly how the league doles out supplemental discipline. What is the chain of command? How does the league weigh prior history and injuries? And, most importantly, are its decisions as “inconsistent” as the keyboard warriors claim?
WHO ARE THESE GUYS? Visiting Gary Bettman’s floor at 1185 Avenue of the Americas conjures up images of a journey into the Death Star. And it
is like that at first. Clear security and you’re handed a pass emblazoned with photo of yourself, taken without your knowledge from a camera above you just seconds earlier.
Big brother is watching. Enter the league offices’ main floor and you’re greeted by a metallic sculpture of the NHL shield the size of a Smart car. Once inside, though, the cold greys give way to colorful jerseys adorning walls and people. The love of the game shines through, especially in affable Echevarrieta, who plays tour guide. Whereas most members of the DOPS, from Quintal to Brian Leetch to Chris Pronger to Pat LaFontaine, come from a playing background, and Burke’s family roots tie to the game, Echevarrieta climbed his way into the department as an obsessive, devoted underdog. He’s a native Brooklyner, raised by a New York Rangers fan mother after his father, a firefighter, died in the line of duty. Echevarrieta played Div. III college hockey and was, as he describes it with an ironic laugh, “not the cleanest player.” He worked his way through the Blueshirts organization, beginning as an intern, in the glory days of Leetch, Mark Messier and Adam Graves. Echevarrieta got noticed working 20 hours a day, and Colin Campbell, who succeeded Mike Keenan as Rangers coach, took Echevarrieta on as a protégé for scouting, running practices and tracking statistics. The two eventually moved on to the league offices. Echevarrieta has worked for the NHL in some capacity ever since, be it for hockey operations or the player safety offshoot. He dreams of being a GM someday. “The fact that I’m even in this world, and it’s now attainable…in the beginning it seemed like, ‘I want to win the lottery,’ ” he said. “And now here I am, working at the league, a vice-president.” Burke is the son of Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, former GM of the Whalers, Canucks, Ducks and Leafs and, between Hartford and Vancouver, the NHL’s executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, preceding Campbell. Patrick is good for a hilarious one-liner a minute, having inherited his dad’s colicky, biting sense of humor. He’s very much a self-made man. He spearheads You Can Play, a nonprofit dedicated to equality among all sexual orientations in sports. He’s an advocate for destigmatizing from depression and famously open about his own struggles. He also spent years as a Philadelphia Flyers scout. But Brian influenced Patrick's path to supplementary discipline, no doubt. “Back when he did it, teams would mail VHS tapes to our house,” Patrick said. “I distinctly remember I would go and sign for them as a 12-year-old, and I would watch them before my dad got home. And now, when my dad comes and visits and sees our setup, he does the ‘Holy Shit’ thing.” Father and son agreed Patrick couldn’t pass up the opportunity to keep players safe and work in one of only two departments that deal exclusively with the game, the other being hockey ops. And Quintal, the player safety head honcho and successor to Brendan Shanahan, couldn’t pass up his new gig, either, even if it meant Quintal would have to leave his beloved Montreal and travel back often to ensure he saw his kids enough. He enjoys New York more than he ever imagined and still squeezes in some afternoon hockey at Chelsea Piers every day. Echevarrieta and Burke are the details men, the rule book experts, and Quintal, who remains very much at his playing weight, is the calming voice of reason. His staff affectionately call him 'Q.' His mellow energy seems to relax the war room the minute he enters. [caption id="attachment_37486" align="alignnone" width="644"]
Quintal and Burke evaluate the night's action.[/caption]
HOW IT GOT STARTED Tell someone on the street you’re visiting the player safety war room and half will say, “Oh, you’re going to Toronto?” The common misconception is that the league has one video review room. It has two. Mike Murphy’s Toronto unit reviews goals and calls by officials. Quintal’s New York group focuses exclusively on enforcing safety. Burke wasn’t exaggerating about his dad receiving VHS footage of questionable hits back in the day. “Sending the tape to the league” is really the way it was 20 years ago. As Echevarrieta explains, offending players would often get another game in before any discipline was doled out, because the NHL wouldn’t see the footage until the next day. He and Campbell set out to change that. They wanted to start watching games. All the games. At the same time. “We literally started plugging in different shaped TVs and VCRs,” Echevarrieta said. “I was just recording all the games myself. It looked like somebody’s basement.” And so began the modern incarnation of the NHL’s hockey operations department, with the likes of Murphy and freshly retired Kris King joining the fray, or what Echevarrieta called “the 31st team.” It changed the way the league interacted with each franchise. Everything was much more instant. Perception of the league changed because it and its referees were held more accountable. “It was no longer being out at dinner and getting a call from a GM who’s saying, ‘You’re out having a good time, and I’m here getting screwed! I’m not going to make the playoffs, and I’m going to get fired, you don’t even know about it!’ ” Echevarrieta said. “Now we were able to say, ‘Yeah, we’re watching.’ ” The league created a Toronto hockey ops department, which dealt with goal reviews, officiating and suspensions. In the 2011 off-season, around the time Shanahan took the player safety mantle, Bettman decided supplementary discipline should be its own department. Hockey ops wore too many hats. So the war rooms divided in two, creating the arrangement that stands today.
HOW THE DEPARTMENT EVALUATES ILLEGAL PLAYS First and foremost, the DOPS operates within the league rulebook. The department members, especially those operating on the front lines watching every game, see so much repetition of on ice-events that they become rule encyclopedias. They know exactly what infraction applies or doesn't apply in a given situation. Burke says Pronger compares the process to practice as a player. Burke also cites author Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, outlined in
Outliers, that spending 10,000 hours on a given task elevates someone to expertise. “You could show Damien, Q, myself…20 borderline hits and say, ‘rank ’em,’ and I guarantee we’d be pretty close,” Burke said. “We watch so much hockey that we have that sense for late, not late, late. You can see something before it happens. You glance up, two players are coming together, and you’re like ‘Oh, we’re gonna be busy tomorrow.’
Thump.” The rulebook is the arena in which the DOPS must work. One reason why we’ll see the odd player get away with a seemingly dirty play, inciting the “inconsistency” criticism: the NHL can’t suspend a player who doesn’t break an official rule, as Echevarrieta explains. The example he cites: Matt Cooke’s dastardly hit on Marc Savard in 2010. Rule 48 – illegal check to the head – didn’t exist yet. Cooke’s behavior didn’t violate the code of conduct at the time. Realizing that was a problem, the league created a new rule the following summer dealing specifically with head contact. The rulebook determines whether certain plays are illegal or potentially suspendable. From there the DOPS factors in the following criteria, which are used in subsequent sentencing:
Narrative. The emotional context of every incident matters. Do the players involved have a history, like Eller and Gryba? Does the game involve division rivals and start with chippy play from the opening faceoff? Narrative isn’t the most important criterion, but it can help establish whether a questionable play has a predatory nature. Robert Bortuzzo earned a suspension for hitting Jaromir Jagr Dec. 2 largely because Bortuzzo and Jagr were at each other all night, escalating a back-and-forth violence that culminated in Bortuzzo’s massive hit. The department can tell if it’s going to be a “long night.” It’s all eyes and ears when a goon like John Scott takes the ice. “If the score is 5-1, and there’s seven or eight minutes to go, and the fourth line’s going out, we’re like ‘Oh my God, something’s going to happen,’ ” Quintal said.
Precedent. Players aren’t the only ones who must monitor their own behavior. The DOPS must keep itself honest if it hopes to achieve consistency in its decisions. The best way to explain a ruling: produce footage of a similar infraction that resulted in similar discipline. If the reverse is true, and a similar play did not result in a suspension, the league takes note of that, too. Once in a while, a play with no precedent occurs, such as Dan Carcillo’s cross-check that injured Mathieu Perreault’s arm in January. The DOPS works from scratch in those cases.
Prior offenses. Previous trips to the principal’s office don’t affect suspensions directly. If someone with a long rap sheet commits a borderline act, and it’s ruled legal, that’s it. Legal is legal. If a repeat offender makes a play deemed suspendable, however, his history works against him. Especially if the illegal acts happen close together, and especially if they are the same type of act. “We have a sense of, ‘Are you doing the same things over and over? Are you learning from what we’re trying to tell you?’ ” Burke said. “If you have a borderline boarding suspension, and then you come back three years later, you’ve never been suspended again, and you have a borderline, whatever, rule 48 suspension, they’re very different plays. It’s not ‘Oh, this guy isn’t getting it.’ So a large portion of what we do here is trying to change player behavior. Trying to be proactive, reach out to guys, and, if we feel a player isn’t learning from what we’re trying to teach him, then, yeah, we’ll hit him harder.”
Injuries. Physical damage that costs a victim playing time affects sentencing once the league decides a player will be suspended. Injuries also muddy supplementary discipline with more questions than any other criterion. Todd Bertuzzi earned a 20-game ban for breaking Steve Moore’s neck in 2004, while Dustin Byfuglien’s deliberate cross check to J.T. Miller’s neck last week caused no long-term damage and earned Big Buff a mere four-game ban. It also hurt Bertuzzi’s case that his attack was part of a revenge narrative after Moore hit Bertuzzi’s teammate Markus Naslund, and it helped Byfuglien that he was a first-time offender. Still, though, injury clearly earned a bigger punishment than action. Is that fair? Well, here’s a crucial lesson learned during the New York visit: injuries and suspensions are linked via the collective bargaining agreement. Among the consequences for which offenders must be responsible: “Injury to the opposing Player(s) involved in the incident.” We may not agree with the logic, but the league and the NHL Players’ Association did when they collectively bargained it. Injuries and suspensions aren’t mirrored, however. The time missed and the time suspended can’t perfectly match up, and it irks Echevarrieta when people demand it should. As he pointed out, what if a player with multiple knee injuries suffers the final blow to a career that was already almost over? You can’t ban the perpetrator for life. Same goes for an injured fourth-liner who may have been a healthy scratch for the next 10 games anyway.
THE CHAIN OF COMMAND Rule violations produce suspensions, and specific criteria affect suspension length. But how does the actual decision-making process work? It starts with that “timeout” moment outlined between Eller and Gryba, after which Echevarrieta or Burke will have an employee edit a “clip” of the hit, packing in as many camera angles as possible. The footage is then sent to Quintal. He has the final say, but his management style is highly democratic. He seeks out everyone’s opinion. He has each department member email thoughts to him and forbids them to “reply all,” as he wants no one influencing each other. Then come the debates, which can get passionate. Quintal says the group will spend upwards of 45 minutes deciding if a guy should get two or three games. And everyone’s background creates a different perspective. Some guys bristle at knee-on-knee collisions, and a concussion sufferer like LaFontaine is harder on headshots, Quintal said. Echevarrieta jokes that Pronger has expertise on the subtle art of elbowing, and that Shanahan knew everything about “the ‘accidental’ high stick.” Quintal makes the final call in the end and will sometimes proactively reach out to GMs on either side of an infraction since they aren't allowed to contact him for the first 48 hours after an incident. So far, Quintal says, the interactions have been respectful and relatively smooth. [caption id="attachment_37487" align="alignnone" width="644"]
A closer look at the war room's video wall.[/caption]
MYTHBUSTING Few things in hockey incite more rage among fans, pundits and teams than cheap shots or dangerous hits. The DOPS members have thus heard it all. And nothing boils their blood like strong opinions founded on incorrect information. They can’t stand the accusation that they play favorites. For Burke, when teams point that finger, it’s the result of not understanding the rulebook. “Everyone who’s a fan of a team, who works for a team, is inherently biased,” he said. “And when I worked for Philly, I would’ve testified in court that the league was out to get us. “As soon as you come here and you see the process, and you sit down and actually read the rulebook…I had been a scout for seven years, and I had never read the rulebook. I knew vaguely what the rules were, but, if you ever want to have fun some time, ask guys to define the rules. Ask a player or a coach or GM or media, “OK, what’s boarding? Tell me what boarding is. Tell me the difference between boarding and a check from behind.” Echevarrieta can’t stand the claim they coddle superstars. He points out they’ve suspended Alex Ovechkin three times and Claude Giroux for Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinal, in which his Flyers faced elimination and lost to New Jersey. Quintal wishes some media members, especially during broadcasts, would use their power more responsibly. “I get mad when a commentator would watch a play for, like, half a second, then say ‘Oh, illegal check to the head’ when the player got him in the shoulder,” Quintal said. “It’s right there, and when it starts, it doesn’t stop. On Twitter, all the social media, it blows up. So I would like them to take a look a couple times before. But I know they have a job to do, and they’ve got to comment on the play.” Most of all, though, the DOPS members want us to know that they don’t “miss” things. If they don’t suspend a certain play, it doesn’t mean they didn’t review it. Burke estimates that, despite doling out 44 suspensions last season, the department reviewed 900 plays. “We’ll be watching a game and hear a play-by-play announcer say, ‘Oh, I hope they look at that!’ ” Burke said, “and you want to email him, and go, ‘We’re listening to you say that.’” Not everyone will agree with the rationale behind every war room decision. At least the office has an open-door policy, however. Journalists and team executives alike are allowed to sit in. The league wants to erase the idea of an adversarial relationship. Those of us on the other side may never feel the penalties are severe enough to fit the crimes, but the league must always operate within the confines of the rulebook and CBA. And everyone shares the desire to make the game safer. “It’s the department of player safety, not the department of punishment,” Echevarrieta said. “We’re trying to change their behavior. Our perfect season would not be a hundred suspensions, where we show everybody we’re in charge. It would be no suspensions, where players aren’t breaking any rules.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin