In the Friday evening tilt between the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets, Sharks forward Evander Kane elbowed Neal Pionk in the head, earning himself two minutes in the penalty box. Did he deserve the penalty? Absolutely.
But what occurred the next day came as a shock to Kane. The NHL Department of Player Safety (DoPS) suspended him for three games.
Kane, in response, tweeted a harsh criticism of the department citing a “major lack of consistency” in discipline, calling the actions of the department “ridiculous” and specifically cited “bias” in the department. Kane also stated the department, led by George Parros, must become an “outside third party.”
Evander Kane and NHL Discipline
Evander Kane is in his 11th NHL season. This is the fifth time the NHL’s version of law enforcement has caught up with Kane — and his fourth suspension.
One recent suspension cost Kane one playoff game. Kane offered an extracurricular cross-check to the face in a 2018 playoff game against the Vegas Golden Knights. It is worth noting a similar but harsher extracurricular cross-check to the face was punished with only a small fine just this past week.
Kane also earned a three-game suspension this season for pushing linesman Kiel Murchison during a scrum in a preseason game. It is worth noting, this suspension was not a player safety issue.
Front and Centre
Kane is often careless with his play and the vast majority of the calls against him are legit. He is among the league’s most penalized players and based on his play, he should be among them.
That said, Kane is officiated differently than other NHL players. It may not be obvious to casual viewers, but over the course of a season, it jumps out how many times Kane is called for penalties which no one else seems to get called for. On the other hand, opposing players are often allowed to take liberties as long as Kane is the recipient. While it is tough to quantify, subjectively speaking, this season has actually (surprisingly given the Murchison incident) been better than last.
No example is more telling of the different standards around Kane, or more disturbing, than the head hit issued to Kane by Zdeno Chara in February 2019. Chara drives Kane’s head hard into the glass with the official staring straight at the play. The official saw everything. So did the Department of Player Safety, which declined to do anything. Kane’s hit on Pionk, while nasty, was not harder or more violent than Chara’s hit on Kane. Yet only Kane was disciplined, getting a very significant three-game suspension.
Kane’s complaint is about consistency and he is spot on. The Department of Player Safety has been a disaster on this front. Doling out discipline for head hits should be completely independent of whose head got hit and who did the hitting. It isn’t.
Department of Player Safety and Favortism
Kane is among the most outspoken players in the league. Outspoken athletes have a lengthy history of being disciplined in unofficial but creative ways. Just ask Colin Kaepernick. Is the league using Kane’s attitude against him? We’d expect that things are impartial and hope to answer that question with a definitive ‘no’, but one really can’t. Indeed, one shouldn’t even come close. There have been too many questions at too many levels to overlook this angle. There is an absence of explanations that hold water unless bias is an element of it.
Kane’s history is checkered and a variety of troubling allegations have come up against him. They’ve come from within his own team and from the outside world. Yet, none of this relieves the NHL of their responsibility to be fair with every player.
Failure Is Failure
Frank Seravalli re-tweeted a quote from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on his positive view towards the Department of Player Safety and Parros’ leadership (taken at the All-Star break, before Kane’s recent comments). The replies to Seravalli’s re-tweet are at least 90% against Bettman’s view, most are scathing. While it’s treacherous to use Twitter replies as some sort of definitive source, one cannot dismiss the fact that fans of nearly every fanbase regularly have criticism for the DOPS. Looking after player safety is a tough job, but that is no excuse for doing so badly.
Kane’s own statement had a surprising number of responses by people who didn’t care for him and agreed with the suspension, yet also said his criticism of the Department of Player Safety was correct. He clearly touched a nerve.
Past Is Prologue
Over the summer, I wrote a four-part series with a major emphasis on player safety, including head hits. I concluded with this:
“In any business, to fix problems requires an accurate assessment of the problems. The keyword is accountability. In theory, it is there. In practice, it isn’t. On this front, there is way too much broken within the NHL ecosystem. Mistakes won’t get fixed if they are covered up. Should people be fired? I can’t imagine anything gets better with the people in charge now.”
Today, there is no reason to change a single word.
One must also note that the media has major and unfulfilled role to play here. Bright sunlight is a key piece of the answer and this comes from the media. For now, the NHL feels far too comfortable ignoring its all-to-tepid critics. It doesn’t help the league when the top hockey media is filled with sycophants fearful of actually addressing these hard issues. It is embarrassing.
The NHL has one major questions coming out of this. Is the Department of Player Safety biased? The bias may come against a team or a player, they may come in favour of a player. As mentioned in this article, Chara has had numerous instances that could have been suspendable but were not. The inconsistencies in the rulings from the DoPS make a strong case for bias. If this is the case, even the strong perception this is the case, it is damaging to the league and harmful to its players.
One Answer, One Response
Few issues hockey issues deserve more scrutiny than player safety and it is essential to do this well. The game is inherently dangerous, but there is every reason to go as far as reasonably possible to make the game fairer and safer. The Department of Player Safety has failed on both fronts.
The players deserve better. Evander Kane may not be popular, but in this case, he is right and many are supportive of his critique. There is only one response to a department which has lost its legitimacy with both players and fans.
Heads need to roll. The NHL commissioner needs to fire George Parros. Now. The league needs to bring in outsiders to re-think how this department functions and bring in new leadership with a different culture. If the commissioner won’t do it, the NHL Board of Governors should fire the commissioner. Now.