Monday, November 21, 2011

NHL Suspensions: Lucic Hit and Role of Intent

After NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan failed to suspend Milan Lucic for his hit on Ryan Miller, the Sabres were none too pleased. They suggested that they may also run the Bruins goalie in another game.

In response, Shanahan said this:

"I think Buffalo's comments are irresponsible to suggest that it's open season. I will have this warning for players: `It's not. If you run a goalie you're going to find yourself in the same situation that Lucic was today, you're going to have to explain yourself and if you don't explain it sufficiently, and if I don't buy it, you're going to be suspended."

On its face, the underlined part of this statement is a problem.

It suggests that a player can talk himself out of a suspension by explaining he did not intend to deliver the hit. According to Shanahan's statement, it appears that Lucic may have explained himself "sufficiently", Shanahan bought it and Lucic wasn't suspended.

The NHL CBA is quite clear. According to Exhibit 8 entitled Procedures Relating To Commissioner Discipline, intent is only one factor that should be considered when considering suspending a player. Other factors include, the player's history, the resulting injury, the type of harm inflicted and when the harm occured. As well, like any good legal document, the CBA leaves it open to Shanahan to consider any other relevant factors.

Strictly speaking, determining a player's intent is very tough. Shanahan can't crawl into that player's head at the time the hit was delivered to figure out what he intended. As well, a player, when asked, won't say he intended to hit the player (cue Lucic).

Hoping that a player tells the truth is like hoping a 5 year old will admit to breaking a vase. Of course, we all know what she would say: "I didn't do it".

This is precisely why intent, as explained by the offending player, cannot be the driving force behind a suspension. Intent should be considered - however, it should be inferred by way of reference to the surrounding circumstances by the decision maker.

If a player commits something that is worthy of a suspension, he should be suspended. Whether he intended it or not should not be a condition for a suspension. Rather, it should affect the length of the suspension. Players are responsible for their actions irrespective of intent. Sure - lack of intent may diminish the length of a suspension.

To do so, gives players an out and sends the wrong message. The message should be 'you are responsible for your actions', not 'you are responsible for your actions unless you can convince me you didn't intend them'.

In part, this is about reconditioning players; tweaking how they act on the ice with a view to modifying behaviour. To accomplish that, the focus must be the hit and not the subsequent excuses.

As a side note, I question the wisdom of installing a former player in the position of NHL disciplinarian. Shanahan is 2 years removed from playing in the NHL and knows many of the players. Conflict number 1. Plus, he played on the edge so may well empathize with the players. Conflict number 2.

Finally, perhaps there is value in having someone in that position who has the training to engage a strategy that is in keeping with the long term plans of the league from a market share and image perspective. Sort of a macro view of things. Shanahan could provide his views from the hockey side, but ultimately a suspension would be a business decision.

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