Broadly speaking, the NHL’s disciplinary standards have improved since a personnel shakeup that installed Brendan Shanahan as the top voice at the Department of Player Safety.
Explanatory videos are provided and the consistency has improved to the point where the ‘NHL Wheel of Justice’ is a joke people make and not an actual, plausible explanation of how suspensions are levied.
What hasn’t changed, despite the name, is that the chief focus of the department is a crime-and-punishment approach to NHL discipline. While “Player Safety” is a title that suggests a department with broad and multifaceted responsibilities, supplemental disciplinary action is what it is best known for.
Sometimes, that discipline is only loosely based around how badly an incident violates the rules.
Here’s the official explanation:
Let’s consider that judgment from two perspectives.
First, let’s look at the hit from a standpoint of how dangerous it is and how obviously it violates the rules.
After pointing to a slash on Miller’s leg, Shanahan emphasizes the really egregious part of the incident, saying, "The fact remains that [Miller] was never eligible to be hit like this in the first place. At no point during his approach does Phaneuf see anything other than Miller’s numbers, so the onus is on him to either avoid the hit completely or at the very least minimize it more than he does."
Hitting a guy in the numbers is obviously wrong. It’s something trained out of hockey players from an early age, most famously by little red stop signs on the back of players’ jerseys.
On this particular hit, there is no shade of grey. Phaneuf saw the guy’s back the whole way and hit him anyway.
Digression: Phaneuf’s personal conduct, while not the primary focus of this piece, has been embarrassing. Telling the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran, “I hit him by accident” was a pretty bad place to start, and then his moaning post-suspension was unseemly:
More from Phaneuf: "I'm not going to comment on the play anymore than saying that I'm not happy about being suspended obviously."— James Mìrtle (@mirtle) December 10, 2013
But the main focus here isn't on Phaneuf, it is on the Department of Player Safety. And knowing nothing else about the hit other than that it was a flagrant and dangerous violation of the rules, we would expect somebody who did something so obviously boneheaded to be slapped down hard.
That, however, isn’t how the NHL works.
Under the NHL model, other factors come into consideration. Player history is one of them, which makes excellent sense if the primary problem is a handful of individual troublemakers. It makes considerably less if the real issue is a widespread culture condoning illegal plays.
Further, taking into account player history gives the appearance of justice having been served, which is very much one of the goals of the department—and understandably so, given how feelings of injustice tend to prompt extremely unsafe situations.
Also taken into account is player injury. That is a real positive on the "sense of justice" side of the equation, but it’s more problematic from a player safety standpoint because sometimes—as in this case with Miller—everybody involved gets lucky and a dangerous play doesn’t have immediate repercussions.
Suspending players is a difficult job, especially because things can change so quickly in a game.
In many cases, even in most cases, adding in player history and extent of injury can lead to a better, fairer decision. As one example, knowing that Player X has a history of dirty play can help establish whether a borderline hit deserves punishment or not.
But in some cases, a lack of injury and history can make a judgment less fair, weakening a suspension in a case where the video leaves nothing to the imagination.
Shanahan makes it clear just how blatant this play was—it’s so obvious that there is precious little room to excuse Phaneuf. But Phaneuf is excused anyway, because those factors that help make decisions clearer on a borderline play only muddy the water on an obvious one.
It’s important to have a player discipline vehicle that is relatively predictable and follows clear guidelines, and as a general rule the guidelines the NHL uses are there for good reason.
However, even a reasonably good system has tradeoffs. The leniency shown here is one of them.