It is early in the third period of what would be a 4-1 win for the Florida Panthers over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 10, and a split-second incident involving Tom Wilson and Brian Campbell is about to take center stage.
There is a loose puck in the far left corner of Florida’s defensive zone and Wilson, Washington’s rugged 21-year old right wing, begins skating diagonally, picking up speed with every stride. As Wilson arrives at the corner, he is greeted by Florida defenseman Brian Campbell.
Wilson slightly changes his trajectory before colliding shoulder to shoulder with Campbell. His momentum sends the Panthers’ defenseman face first into the glass at BB&T Center. A whistle blows, and the officiating staff of Francis Charron and Steve Kozari level Wilson with a five-minute major for boarding and a game-misconduct while Campbell receives treatment for a bloody nose.
One thousand two hundred and sixty-three miles away in New York City, Damian Echevarrieta wants to take a second look at the hit.
“Clip it,” he says.
And so begins another work night for the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety.
Watching in New York
Walk into the office on the 12th floor of the of the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters and you would think you are in the middle of a hockey fan’s dream.
There is a wall-sized projection screen surrounded on the left and right by four large flat screen televisions mounted on a wall. Work stations are equipped with smaller televisions and laptops.
The people in this room are not watching the televised games for fun. They are waiting to see if there are acts of violence on the ice that might require punishment beyond what the refs can levy.
“A good night for us is when nothing interesting happens,” says Patrick Burke, Director of Player Safety. “We don’t get to enjoy the game like a fan does or even like a lot of media does. We’re just sitting around, waiting for somebody to do something stupid.”
The department was created in 2011 when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman decided that the league’s increasing emphasis on dealing with violence created too much work for the Hockey Operations staff to handle and needed to administered by a separate agency.
Brendan Shanahan, now the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, launched the office and Stephane Quintal, a former defenseman with Boston, Chicago, Montreal, the New York Rangers, St. Louis and the first iteration of the Winnipeg Jets, took over later that year as Senior Vice President of Safety.
Quintal oversees a department which includes Echevarrieta, Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations; Burke; Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger, and staffers who log and clip noteworthy moments from every game. Most of the staff work in the office although Pronger – who lives in St. Louis – and Quintal do a bit traveling over the course of a season.
“It’s a good thing to have people outside this room,” said Echevarrieta. “Sometimes we start to think exactly the same, which isn’t always a good thing. You need some different perspective. And when you’re at a game, you can run into a GM, assistant GM, assistant coach, a president and have some give-and-take on various things.”
Should an incident occur on the ice, the staff – which has access to home and away broadcasts – can compile and email a clip with notes to Echevarrieta in five minutes.
Echevarrieta reviews the play and emails members of the department to ask for their opinions.
If a disciplinary hearing is deemed necessary, both the team and its player will receive the materials compiled by the Player Safety department.
A hearing for a possible suspension of less than five games is handled by phone; for five or more games, players have the right to an in-person hearing at the league office that includes the player, his agent, his general manager, an NHLPA representative and Player Safety officials.
A player can appeal a suspension to Bettman. If he upholds the ruling, the player can appeal to a neutral arbitrator.
“Hearings are unique because that’s the player’s one chance in his mind to explain himself,” Burke said. “A lot of times they’ll argue pretty forcefully about the call, about the ruling, about what happened on the ice.”
Before rulings can be announced, the department is required by the collective bargaining agreement that followed the 2012 lockout to factor in whether a player was injured and whether the offending player has a history of prior offenses.
According to Echevarrieta, the department “has a video for every suspension,” along with a database of players’ histories. Echevarrieta points out that history and repeat offender status are separate “distinctions.” A repeat offender has to have been involved in multiple incidents within an 18-month span.
Behind Burke and Echevarrita’s work stations hangs a chart of the total number of suspensions and fines players have accrued this season. On the night a reporter sat in the office, it showed eight suspensions compared to 10 at the same point last season. Soon after, a three game suspension was levied against Anaheim center Nate Thompson for an illegal check to the head of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk in the first period of the Canes’ 5-1 win on Dec. 11.
“When I first started 17 years ago, anybody could have seen a suspension,” Echevarrita said. “It was a two-handed slash or a flying elbow, and you knew the bad guys [who] were going to do it, or the guys [who] were prone to do it. Now you have suspensions [and it’s] energy guys just trying to get in on the forecheck and might hit a guy a little too high or hit him a little too late. It’s more reckless than intentional.
“We rarely have a play where we said, ‘He went out and tried to hurt him.’ ”
The closest such incident – and Echevarrita was adamant that the department viewed it as “reckless” rather than intentionally violent – occurred during a preseason game between San Jose and Anaheim, involving Sharks left wing Raffi Torres and Ducks right wing Jakob Silfverberg.
Torres drove his shoulder into Silfverberg’s head, after the Anaheim winger had lost control of the puck in the first period of the Ducks’ 5-1 win on Oct. 3. Two days later, Player Safety announced Torres was suspended for 41 games for the hit. Torres and his general manager, Doug Wilson, released statements on Oct. 8 through the team in which both accepted the ruling.
“There are very few players in our league that have Raffi Torres’ history,” Echevarrieta said. “And not only history of being suspended, but being suspended for similar plays.
“We had been suspending him, and we needed to increase the severity of the penalty so he pays attention.”
A target for criticism
The department has frequently been a target for criticism from fans, media and teams.
In the immediate aftermath of two incidents in games that took place on Nov. 27, outrage emanated from franchises that rarely see eye-to-eye:
The Penguins and the Rangers.
Pittsburgh fans and media erupted after it was announced that Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky was suspended for one game after cross-checking Sidney Crosby twice in the Blue Jackets’ 2-1 overtime win. Crosby collapsed to the ice following the first crosscheck, and the second snapped Dubinsky’s stick in half while the Pittsburgh center lay prone.
The Dubinsky-Crosby incident took place a few hours after the Rangers lost center Derek Stepan for 4-6 weeks with broken ribs following a check from Matt Beleskey in the second period of the Boston Bruins’ 4-3 nationally televised win over New York.
The on-ice officiating crew of Wes McCauley and Chris Rooney did not penalize Beleskey for the hit, and the left wing was neither fined nor suspended by the league, much to the chagrin of Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who vented to reporters prior to New York’s 3-0 loss to the Flyers on Nov. 28 at Madison Square Garden when asked about the hit.
“Was it a late hit? In our opinion, it definitely was. Should we help [Stepan] moving forward to better protect himself? We’re going to try to do that. That’s the second time that has happened,” Vigneault said.
It was unclear if Vigneault was referencing then-Montreal Canadian Brandon Prust’s hit in Game 3 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final which broke Stepan’s jaw, or a hit earlier this season from Senators center Zack Smith.
“By the league not saying anything about the missed call on the ice or supplementary discipline, they are sending a message to the players,” Vigneault said. “So [you’re] biting your lip and teaching your players to better protect themselves and move on.”
When the topic of Vigneault’s comments were broached, Echevarrieta says he understands why the New York coach was outspoken but noted the department has not “suspended a player for interference where it wasn’t a violent or predatory hit, or whether there wasn’t significant head contact.
“We don’t feel like we missed that one. We think it’s unfortunate that Stepan got hurt.”
He is far less sympathetic when the subject of Prust is raised.
Now a member of the Vancouver Canucks, Prust was fined $5,000 for spearing Boston left wing Brad Marchand in the groin late in the third period of the 4-0 loss on Dec. 5. A day later, Prust told reporters in Vancouver the fine was the “best money I’ve ever spent.”
“I really didn’t like that,” Echevarrieta said. “It’s sounding like he doesn’t take what we do serious. I think we’ll take that into account. We thought it was more reckless, but that quote makes it sound intentional.
“I really didn’t like that comment.”
Burke stressed the work of the department is supported by the individual team executives, the league’s Board of Governors and the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
“Our players are learning more about respecting each other,” Burke says, but he does not foresee a day in which Player Safety is no longer needed.
“There’s no way to play this game without crossing the line.”