Saturday, April 21, 2012

Education and the NHL's Officiating/Discipline Crisis

It's very odd to see sports fans unite together and all agree on something. I mean, yeah, generally they all hate the owner(s), but with a handful of exceptions across the sports world, everything is up for debate. Nothing has a consensus, especially as events unfold and tempers are high. But across the NHL right now, regardless of whether or not your team is in the playoffs, regardless of whether it's happening to or against your favorite team or player, hockey fans across the board are virtually unanimous on a handful of current events: 
  1. The officiating these playoffs has been questionable at best
  2. The dirty hits/cheap shots/fighting/brawling have gotten way out of hand 
  3. The NHL and Brendan Shanahan have done a poor job of regulating the league in this years playoffs.
Now as a teacher, I have a lot of skills and methods to teach and problem solve. I also have a lot of skills and methods to maintain a positive classroom environment, keeping kids safe and happy, and using discipline as a way that both curbs negative behavior and encourages positive behavior. So Gary, Brendan, I need you two to go ahead and have a seat, and we need to talk about what's been happening in these playoffs and how we can fix them. Together. Go ahead, have a seat.

Pretty typical classroom at this point: one student with dead, lifeless eyes and another who won't shut up.
Why are we here? Brendan, you are here because of what can be best described as "inconsistent" discipline. The league has stated goals of protecting player safety and a reducing in violent cheap shots, and you were specifically selected to achieve that. Gary, you are here because you are supposed to be leading the league. You're here because you have struggled or failed to handle those duties well.

But overall, this is about how the decisions that you both have made with regards to Shea Weber caused the incident between Raffi Torres and Marian Hossa. How you are responsible for what is happening in the playoffs this year. And how your mistakes are becoming deciding factors in games and series.

Raffi Torres didn't attack Marian Hossa because Shea Weber slammed Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass. And I won't even say that your only giving Shea Weber a $2500 fine for a flagrant assault on another human being made Raffi Torres do what he did. Raffi Torres did what he did because he's a terrible human being. I actually think Torres' behavior stems from a psychopathic need to distance himself from his name sake.
One of these guys is a soulless torturer of children, the other plays for the Phoenix Coyotes. So...same thing
He has a history of being a goon that cheap shots people. This article shows his discipline history:
Torres' has been suspended twice: This hit on Jordan Eberle, which forced him to sit for four games, and the hit on Prosser netted him a 2 game suspension. Torres is a head hunter who needs to be out of the league unless he can reform his game. But how does this relate to Shea Weber? Put on your metaphor hats, because it's analogy time!

One of the hardest things to do as a teacher is discipline and classroom management It's even harder to start off lenient and become strict later on. It's better to start off strict and become lenient over time. Doesn't mean you walk in and Sparta kick a student in the chest, but it does mean you set the standard of behavior and discipline early.

Starting off lax and then becoming strict later on is abrupt. It's confusing. It's shocking to the students. It'll be seen as retribution and revenge and not as appropriate discipline. It's less likely to engender respect from them and more likely to create feelings of resentment and create victims.

Instead, you have to codify your rules and standards of your classroom from the beginning and enforce them strictly and consistently. For example, when I'm in a classroom, I generally do not allow electronic communication and entertainment devices in the classroom, I.E. iPods, iPhones, smart phones, cell phones, handheld video game systems, etc., etc. While there are valid and appropriate uses for those technologies in the classroom, rarely are they used those ways. They're instead used for texting, Facebook, youtube, music and games. So I don't allow them*

I tell the students exactly that and I tell them that if I see such devices out, I will confiscate them. And the first time it happens, I have to do what I said I was going to do. I have to set the precedent there. If I don't, if I'm lenient, then everyone is going to reach into their pocket and pull out their electronic devices. And trying to confiscate those devices becomes in exercise in obnoxious whining: "But you didn't take THEIR iPod so what are you taking MINE!? Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

*Now, here's the thing: once I've followed through on my promise, I can exercise a bit of leniency. If the students demonstrate their ability to follow directions and behave, and as long as they can continue to do that, I can relax my rules a bit. But if they don't demonstrate acceptable behavior to begin with, we never move to that leniency.

The analogy is not perfect, I admit. A hit to the head is not the same as texting in a classroom. But the point about defining acceptable behavior from the start, following through on discipline procedures, and only allowing for leniency when the criteria have been met has merit. That's why Zetterberg's incidental but dangerous hit this year on Nikita Nikitin went unpunished beyond the in-game penalty. Yes, it was dangerous, but Zetterberg is known to abide by the rules, play a clean game, and his slight contact on Nikitin was secondary to Nikitin's legs slipping out from under him. Had Zetterberg pushed more forcefully and/or had a history of deviant behavior in the NHL, it would have went differently. 

In all honesty, I think you started off this season doing the job right, Brendan, and I have largely defended your decisions as appropriate. I agreed when you suspended Brendan Smith for 8 games for his head shot in the preseason. I agreed with no discipline for Zetterberg, and I agreed with the suspension on Quincey. I believe that if players are going to be taking cheap shots at each other with reckless abandon and a disregard for player safety, they should fear the fierce punishment from the Shanahammer. I also want to praise something else that should be the standard for all professional sports. While your delivery may be dry, the explanation videos are exactly what is needed. It's very similar to discipline processes used in schools. If a student (or player) is breaking a rule, you go through the process:
  • What are you doing? (What did the player do? "An incident occurred...")
  • What is the rule about...? (Same thing. "Rule #XZ.Y says... ...this is in violation of...") 
  • Decide what, if any, needs to happen, and explain why you're doing what you're doing
So the videos are great, and going through that process publicly with the players and fans is great. And showing examples of good plays is great. Showing the difference between good behavior and bad behavior is essential. It's so essential that I'm doing it right now. 

Gary, the problem I have with you, is that you're undermining everything that Brendan is trying to do, and insulting fans and players in the process. It's bad enough when a mistake is made. It's worse when the head of the league comes out and says stuff like this and this:
"When I mentioned that the league had been inconsistent with penalties — contrasting Shaw's three-game suspension with Predators defenseman Shea Weber's $2,500 fine for slamming Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass — Bettman scoffed."

'The Shea Weber situation was one that I think people have given excess attention to (but) nobody thinks it should have been more than a one-game suspension,' Bettman said. 'The attention it is getting has nothing to do with the other situations on the ice.' "
Gary, why would you say that? What do the league, the players and the fans have to gain from that statement? Detroit fans have been furious since the hit and that fury was intensified since the weak discipline from Brendan. And you mocked them. You mocked their anger and their dissatisfaction. You "scoffed"? You scoffed at them, Gary.

I said at the beginning that I was going to connect the Shea Weber incident to the Raffi Torres incident. Simple: Brendan, you are a teacher who started off the second semester being lenient with your discipline, and are now frantically trying to regain control of your classroom. Your players (students) have sensed your uncertainty, they caught wind of your mistake, and they are behaving without regard for your authority. Like I said, Torres didn't try to murder Hossa because you handed Weber a $2500 fine. But there was no incentive not to. He's been treated with relative leniency before and the first incident of the playoffs, the Weber incident, sent a message of further leniency.

If the rest of the students notice your lack of discipline, there's less of an incentive to try to stay within the boundaries of the rules. If you have two students whispering to each other during a lecture, and you don't keep an eye on it, two more start whispering, and then two more. Then first two, needing to hear each other over the lecture and the other students, talk louder. They start talking louder and louder to be heard over each other. By the end of it, even very well behaved students who usually aren't a problem fall victim and are being disruptive. If you don't believe that, look at the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia Game series. Claude Giroux, who had 29 PIM during the regular season and 8 PIM in 4 games played in last years playoffs has 11 PIM in 4 games played so far this playoffs. Including a 5 minute fighting major.

And it's bad enough when it's a lecture, but guess what happens when it's test? You let people start cheating and people are going to continue cheating.

Alright, it's been a long class. Everyone take a couple moments to process what's been said, and then we'll move on to solutions after the break.
There were three things that I said we were all unanimously agreed upon as hockey fans.I specifically pointed to things you both had done poorly with regards to those concerns. I wouldn't be a good teacher if I didn't share with you ways to improve. Because as a hockey fan and a teacher, I want the game to be the best it can be and I want everyone who wants to be successful to be successful.

Brendan: You have to start off strict and you have to maintain that level throughout the season. Then you have to reaffirm that dedication to a certain standard of behavior when the playoffs (second semester) starts. You have to be consistent and fair - and fair doesn't necessarily mean equal. That's something the fans need to understand, too.

I understand the playoffs are going to be harder fought, it's going to be more physical, and that everyone from fans to players to league to the media want. However you need to understand that if you are going to be too lenient with the standard of behavior you're going to allow, we will see exactly what we have seen so far in the playoffs. 

You dropped the ball here. That's okay. Not all of my lesson plans went the way I wanted them to. But guess what, the next round of the playoffs are going to start here as each series start to wrap up. That means you have another opportunity to set the bar before play starts and be consistent. You should release the statement, and then follow through with it:
"During the first round of the playoffs, we experienced an influx of issues regarding the physicality of our players. There were moments of excessive violence and plays became dangerously out of control. Many have felt the league did not handle them effectively, and so we are resolving to work with our officiating crews and players to set a consistent standard of skill, intensity, physicality, sportsmanship and safety that will continue throughout the playoffs." 
Gary: You need to master the art of leadership, because it has been abysmal so far. We cannot have you in the media criticizing or minimizing the feeling of fans. While we can't have you go to the press and make Brendan a sacrificial lamb, we also can't have you dishonestly denying that mistakes have been made. When you said, "I'm certain it was observed by hockey operations and in particular player safety and to the extent it requires review or action, they will do it." That was perfect. Delegating the responsibility to the correct people and leaving it at that.

Your biggest challenges come in the off season. My friend Ty over at The Lions in Winter wrote an article for the Bleacher Report talking about how the NFL can fix its officiating. It's an excellent read. Change "NFL" to "NHL" and much of it applies. I understand that with the CBA and other league rules and policies, you can't flip a switch. But these need to be priorities for you, Gary, moving forward in negotiations with the NHLPA and the owners within the league:
  • Streamline any addendum that unnecessarily complicate the rules.
  • Launch a comprehensive review of the discipline procedures during the pre-season, regular season and post season to find areas of improvement and address those needs.
  • Introduce a public grading system for NHL officials, with an objective rating system, that holds bad referees and linesmen accountable and rewards and recognizes those who excel.
  • Expand the current ability of NHL officials to review plays.
  • Introduce the ability for teams to challenge plays and rulings in games, including penalty calls.
    • 2 challenges per game. A failed challenge results in a 2 minute Delay of Game penalty and/or loss of your timeout. 
  • A major part of the next CBA needs to be an increase in the financial punishments that can be enforced on players when a violation occurs.
  • Allow the league to apply penalties that occur after regulation to the next game within a playoff series.
    • Ex: The 2 minute penalty Weber received at the end of Game 1 would be enforced at the start of Game 2. 
  • Refrain from punishing players and coaches who lobby public criticism towards players, the league or the officials, so long as the criticism is not obscene, violent or threatening. 
I don't like Hired Gun Hossa. I didn't like him in Pittsburgh, I didn't like him in Detroit, I don't like him in Chicago. I believe team loyalty is huge, and while I understand people want to make more money or have a better chance at success, Hossa just rubbed me the wrong way. Plus, Marian is a girl's name. But while I may like to see him shut down in a game, and yeah, even laid out, doesn't mean I wished for what Torres did to him. There's only a couple of players ever I'd maybe like to see taken out like that. Such as a certain former Colorado Avalanche who shall remain nameless.

Pictured: Something completely unrelated to what I was just talking about
Hockey is a bone crunching, fast-paced, intense sport. And it needs to stay that way. We need guys on the ice that can throw big body checks and hip checks. All we ask of those guys is you keep your feet on the ice, your elbows in and don't hit people in the head, neck, knees or from behind. Or when they don't have the puck. The only time you should use your fists is when the other guy agrees to use his. And all we ask of the league and the officials is to hold the players accountable when they fail to abide by those standards. When you don't, when you fail to do this effectively, you adversely affect the quality of the game. If you do it correctly, you don't have to suspend Raffi Torres for 25 games because that hit probably never happens. And if it does happen, and you suspend him for 25 games, it's because what he did was so out of line with everything else that has happened in the playoffs, not because you're trying to save face.

Class Dismissed.


  1. While I disagree with you that the Weber incident has led to the rash of suspensions/discipline so far this playoff, I think you're criticism of the way the league has handed out that discipline is dead on. But unfortunately that's always been the problem, even with Campbell being the NHL Warden. I think Shanahan has taken steps in the right direction, though, and it will get better soon. Keep in mind that in the beginning of the regular there were quite a few suspension very early on, but things settled down as the season wore on

    1. I wasn't meaning to imply it led to the rash of suspensions/discipline so far; more that the incident and how it was handled has turned the playoffs almost into a game of whack-a-mole. But I get where you're coming from.

      I also think the pre-season discipline cannot be directly compared to post season discipline, if for no other reason than the pre-season was a new head disciplinarian applying the newly adjusted rules and standards. But your point is worth nothing.

      Thanks for your comments!

    2. Sweet Mother of Crap, I can't type today! I even screw up my clarifying reply! That should say "Your point is worth NOTING!" not nothing. I hope you forgive the typo, I didn't mean to accidentally say your point was worth nothing.

      Your point is worth noting.