Why hiring ‘hammers’ works for NHL player safety

NHL Department of Player Safety has handed down a 3-game suspension to Andrew Ference for his head shot on Canucks Zack Kassian.

Daniel Sedin can’t remember if he played against Scott Stevens or not, but not for the same reason so many others have hazy reflections of their meetings with the big, bruising defenceman.

Sedin was a young player in the opposite conference, so if they met — and they almost surely did — it was at the tail end of Stevens’ career and the beginning of Sedin’s. Daniel does, however, recall playing against Chris Pronger. Perhaps most notably on March 12, 2008, when Pronger incurred the longest suspension of his career (eight games) for intentionally stepping on Ryan Kesler’s leg with his skate.

Today, Chris (The Stomper) Pronger is a member of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DPS), while the department’s headman Stephane Quintal (1,320 penalty minutes in 1,037 games) is interviewing for another lieutenant from a list that reportedly includes Stevens, Owen Nolan and George Parros.

"I think you’ve got to trust that they’re going to make the right decision," said Daniel, when asked about the breed of candidate at the DPS. "I don’t know the guys; I played against them. Not that they were the cleanest players, but they’re going to do what’s best for the game … right?"

There is a collection of "hammers" forming atop the DPS, but couldn’t they use some perspective from a few former "nails" like a Paul Kariya or a Dean McAmmond, another Pronger victim. Brian Leetch used to be part of the DPS equation, but has since moved on. Pat Lafontaine has a working role with the NHL and is consulted, but he is closer to deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s department than Quintal’s.

The issue that many of us have with the DPS is that it always seems busier protecting the rights of the perpetrators than the victims (same with the NHLPA, which defends the rights of the hitter far more vociferously than the victim, in our opinion). Like, who exactly is protecting the Daniel Sedins, these days?

"I don’t know," Daniel admits.

Cross the dressing room to Kevin Bieksa’s stall, and you get a perspective that fairly represents the vast majority of those non-Sedin types.

"You see all of Scott Stevens’ highlight-reel hits. Today they’d all be five- or 10-game suspensions. But, that’s the way the game was played back then," begins Bieksa, who has never been suspended. "I think you want those guys in those positions. If you had people who’d never played the game, or skill guys who never really walked the line in those capacities, maybe we’d question whether or not they had the experience for it? The mind for it?"

The player safety landscape has changed markedly and for the better, beginning with Rule 48 and stretching all the way to the time limit when a player is still liable to be hit after passing the puck. In the video describing the recent three-game suspension for Alex Burrows, Director of Player Safety Patrick Burke notes contact occurred, "nearly one full second after Emelin releases the puck, well after the acceptable time to finish a check…

"This hit is so late that it can not be made at all."

On Jordan Nolan’s recent hit from behind on Darren Helm, the narrator said, "At no point is Helm eligible to hit on this play, in any manner. The onus is entirely on Nolan to avoid this check completely."

That sentiment sums up the greatest alteration that players like Pronger, Stevens, Parros, or whoever gets the job, will have to get their head around. It was never up to Pronger or Quintal to protect an opponent. Now, for Matt Hendricks, it is.

"The difference is determining when a player is in a very vulnerable situation," began the Oilers banging winger. "Now the hitter needs to take some onus. You can still finish a guy when his back is to you, but you have to (almost hug) him into the boards a bit. Hold him up a bit.

"The old school way was, ‘You shouldn’t have turned.’ Now, you’ve got to look out for each other a little bit more."

Judging by their hiring practices, the NHL is intent on retaining a tough, physical game. With skill rising in young, incoming players and physical play declining, that’s the right approach. Under Brendan Shanahan, the DPS has become much more consistent, thorough, and its impact on the game is tangible.

It’s working, and players are far, far safer than ever before. So let them hire whom they wish.