The NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DoPS) announced on Sunday that St Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo had been suspended four games as a result of his actions against the Nashville Predators on November 23rd. During the incident, Bortuzzo cross-checked Preds forward Viktor Arvidsson twice. The second time was when Arvidsson was lying on the ice after the referee had called Bortuzzo for a cross-checking penalty. Bortuzzo served a two-minute minor penalty for cross-checking and returned to the game. He will forfeit $67,073.16 in salary as a result of the suspension.

Arvidsson was not so lucky. He left the game after this incident, and the Predators have since announced that he will miss 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury. They also went to the lengths of stressing that this injury was a direct result of the cross-check he received during the game. Naturally, the Predators are not happy with this incident and suspension and neither are a lot of hockey fans.

One of the main arguments against DoPS is that they are inconsistent with the length of suspensions they have handed out. ABNT’s Adam Bidwell wrote a fantastic piece recently detailing the inconsistencies in suspension length.

My biggest issue is that DoPS are not doing what they were created to do, which was looking out for the safety of players in the NHL. After the league repeatedly talked about the need to remove head hits and dirty plays from the game, I don’t believe they are doing anywhere near enough to follow through with this.

Supplementary Discipline Is Not Acting as a Deterrent

Bortuzzo is considered a repeat offender by the NHL under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). In the preseason of 2018, he was suspended for elbowing Washington’s Michal Kempny and missed a total of three games, two pre-season and one regular-season. He has also been fined twice for cross-checking.

The CBA states that “Players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation”. The increased severity of punishment in this instance is either one game or three games, depending on how you view preseason games. That seems to me to be an almost insignificant increase, especially for a player who clearly hasn’t learned his lesson from his past incidents. I appreciate that no player wants to miss games and forfeit salary but sitting out for just over a week for being a repeat offender doesn’t feel like much of a punishment.

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DoPS are also supposed to take any injury sustained by the opposing player into account when making a decision. Arvidsson will miss at least a month due to injury but I fail to see how this has been taken into account in Bortuzzo’s suspension. At the very most the injury has added a game or two to the suspension for Bortuzzo. This does not feel like much of a deterrent for a player violating League Playing Rules. I firmly believe that this is why the league has had little success in eliminating dirty plays from the game.

Suspension lengths need to be longer, especially for repeat offenders. The league needs to show offending players that they will no longer accept these types of reckless or dirty incidents and that they are prepared to punish players and teams more severely. If they continue as they are at the moment, nothing will change.

An Ugly Incident That Is All Too Common in the NHL

The sequence of events leading up to the incident was something that you see every night in the NHL. A battle for the puck around the crease followed by a defenseman using his stick to clear the opposition forward out of the way. In this instance, Bortuzzo gets called for a minor penalty as he cross-checked Arvidsson dangerously from behind into the net. What happens next is the bit that I have a real issue with and points to a bigger issue in hockey in my opinion.

Bortuzzo complains to the referee and clearly believes that Arvidsson went down too easily. Diving/embellishing are things that seem to really rile opposition players and more often than not this leads to a confrontation. Bortuzzo takes exception to this and cross-checks Arvidsson again, this time while he’s lying on the ice. It was this cross-check that resulted in the injury. It was a malicious, nasty incident that DoPS referred to as “not a hockey play”. It was more than that, it was an attempt to inflict injury on an opponent.

Since hockey began, players have been taking their frustrations out on each other and administering their own forms of justice. It has been an accepted part of hockey culture, and no doubt we will see this continued when Bortuzzo has to answer the bell the next time he plays against Nashville. It is one of the reasons that many fans love the game.

I personally believe the system is broken. Antiquated beliefs, like the game is “self-policing”, appear to be holding back decision makers and as a result, the punishments are not fitting the crimes. Players are not being made to pay for their actions. Therefore we will continue to see these types of incidents happening across the NHL.

What Will It Take to Change This?

The Department of Player Safety has shown no appetite to increase the suspensions handed out due to supplementary discipline. They looked like they were changing their ways last season when they upheld a 20-game ban given to Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, a repeat offender, for checking to the head. The ban was then reduced to 14-games by a neutral arbitrator but this suspension has turned out to be an exception. This raises the question: what will it take to change this?

The most obvious answer is a serious injury to a player as the result of a dangerous play. Will it take a sickening event to finally make the league review how they discipline these players? The problem with this is that we’ve seen players seriously injured before as a result of a hit (think Matt Cooke or Raffi Torres). These incidents tend to be dealt with individually and have not led to an overall increase in suspension length.

Another scenario that could cause the league to review its supplementary discipline is legal action. Could we get to a point where a player sues the league due to something that happened on the ice? It is probably unlikely that we will see this happening. However, it is not unforeseeable to imagine a player who has suffered a career-ending injury taking legal action. We have seen this with lawsuits relating to concussions, so could other on-ice incidents trigger similar legal action?

It’s Hard to Believe That Real Change Will Happen

Hockey has advanced so much in the 100+ years it has been played. The on-ice product is in a much better place, containing quicker and more skillful players. It is also a cleaner game than it was in the 70s and 80s, but there is still a long way to go to eradicate the undesirable parts of the game. Our increased knowledge of concussions and effects of CTE should lead to NHL decision-makers prioritizing the safety of its players, but can anyone say that this is really what’s happening?

Incidents like the Bortuzzo/Arvidsson one, and the lack of a fitting punishment from DoS, serve as a reminder that player safety is not as big a priority as it should be. It’s hard to feel optimistic that anything will change in the near future. For now, we just have to hope it doesn’t get any worse.

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