A Call to Fix the NHL's Dysfunctional Disciplinary System

Joseph BeareCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2008

When I saw San Jose Shark Torrey Mitchell and Minnesota Wild Kurtis Foster collide violently into the endboards on Wednesday—Foster to get the icing called and Mitchell to help the Sharks avoid the icing—it was obvious to me that Mitchell's intentions were innocent.

This is not some biased view coming from a diehard Sharks fan, but rather a realistic interpretation based on personal on-ice experience, and a familiarity with the players involved.

Mitchell is not a dirty player. He is quick, tenacious, and he knows it. He uses his best assets to his advantage, and it's made him one of the most pleasant surprises of San Jose's roller coaster season thus far. 

When I read that the NHL spent three hours determining whether or not the incident required disciplinary action on the part of league officials, I was shocked. The NHL has proven time and time again that they punish the result, not the action.

How many times have we seen a questionable hit, levied against a player who has popped back up, result in nothing more than a two-minute minor? Compare that with the incidents in which a player received a border line hit that resulted in injury, and how the league and officials have reacted.

Only once in recent memory has NHL disciplinarian Colin Cambell gotten it right, and that is in the case of Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron.

Bergeron, who is a fast, physical player, put himself in a vulnerable position, was hit from behind, and had his season essentially ended as a result. The NHL suspended offender Randy Jones for just three games, which pales in comparison to the amount of contests missed by Bergeron, who will likely never be the same player even if he returns to the ice in the near future.

Jones's intent, however, did not warrant a ridiculously long suspension. It was unfortunate and careless on the part of both parties, but not a malicious play by any means. Comparatively, Mitchell getting tangled up with a hard-charging Foster during a good old-fashioned hockey play looks downright innocent.

So why the three-hour review? Why is the man in charge of handing out discipline to the league's players so reactionary, and is that good for the game? How can one person be expected to dish out objective discipline?

Campbell is not the only man to blame. The officials, frightened at every moment that they might not see playoff action if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't like the way they call a tiny little hook on the gloves, are worrying more about stick infractions and interference than potentially life-threatening bodily contact.

The NHL's disciplinary system is in dire need of a remodel. Suspensions and discipline should be the decision of a committee, not of one person who has been involved in literally every aspect of the game for years, and has built up personal prejudices, opinions, beefs and friendships that clearly interfere with his ability to do the right thing with any kind of consistency.

There will always be controversy when a player is disciplined. There will always be the old-time hockey argument pitted firmly against those looking to change the rules as the game and its players have changed over the years.

Regardless, it is imperative that the league take a good, long look at their disciplinary process and make a few changes there rather than worrying constantly about the best new way to get casual fans watching our great game between re-runs of Ted Nugent's reality TV abomination on Versus.