Monday, January 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Here's how NHL determines which hits earn suspensions

NEW YORK

Jonathan Drouin was knocked to the ice on a hit to the head by the Islanders' Calvin de Haan on Nov. 1.

Within seconds, Lightning fans rendered their verdict on Twitter.

"De Haan should be suspended."

"Dirty hit!"

"@NHLPlayerSafety better be on this."

The league's Department of Player Safety was. By the time de Haan had served his five-minute major penalty for interference, the hit had already been flagged, clipped and emailed to 13 people in the department. They decided the hit was unavoidable, so de Haan wouldn't face supplemental discipline.

The controversial check sidelined Drouin for seven games, the wing returning Thursday against the Sabres.

"We discussed that play in depth," says Patrick Burke, director of player safety.

Burke reflected on the hit last Sunday as he sat in the back row of the department's "war room" on the 12th floor of the league office. On any given night, up to nine full-time employees are watching every play of every game on 16 flat-screen, high-definition televisions. Ten additional workstations provide the home and away teams' television feeds.

Roughly 650 hits are flagged each season for further review. An average of 30 result in suspensions. That's just under 5 percent. The department has its share of critics, but it prides itself on being thorough and transparent. It realizes that with 30 fan bases, it will always be unpopular, depending on what player is on the receiving end of a controversial hit.

"Every fan is genuinely convinced we hate their team," Burke said.

Every flagged play is scrutinized in slow motion, from every available angle, the razor-thin line separating legal from illegal always kept in mind.

"We know the difference between a suspension and not a suspension can be 6 inches in a game where guys are going full speed," said Burke, a former Flyers scout. "We do a really good job in taking away (from the game) the really, really vicious, violent, vigilante plays. Most of our suspensions now are guys who missed slightly or just a hit that went a little bit sideways, for some reason."

•••

This hi-tech hit courtroom has been around for only about five years in its current form.

A decade or two ago, teams had to send VHS tapes of questionable hits to the league office via snail mail. Burke knows that well. His father — Brian Burke, now the Flames' president for hockey operations — was in charge of such reviews in the mid 1990s while an NHL executive vice president. Patrick would often sign for the packages when they were sent along to the Burke home.

"I'd be the first to watch them," Patrick quipped.

He remembers once when he was 11, his father called around bedtime. He told his dad, "I think something happened in the Islanders game."

"Okay, Patty, I'll take a look," his father said.

Sure enough, a suspension resulted from the game. Patrick said that then-Islanders general manager Mike Milbury told Brian, "After everything that went down, our guys are getting suspended because your kid is watching games?"

Said Patrick: "It's a little better system now than when an 11-year-old is watching games. But I nailed it."

•••

Damian Echevarrieta is the historian of the Department of Player Safety.

Hired by the NHL in 1999, Echevarrieta helped set up a makeshift war room with a satellite dish, several TVs and games recorded on VHS tapes. The current, much more advanced setup started in 2011, when the department was made its own entity. A separate office in Toronto handles goal reviews and coaches challenges.

On a recent Sunday, the war room was pretty quiet. Only a handful of games were being played. Coordinators such as Chris Nastro sat at a workstation, documenting every questionable hit from a Chicago-Montreal game: interference, hit to the head, high-stick. He noted a scrum earlier in the game in case a retaliatory illegal hit resulted later. In general, three to four hits a night might be flagged for review.

On Nov. 1, one of them was de Haan's on Drouin.

The clip was sent to Stephane Quintal, senior vice president of player safety, who decided it was worth discussion, asking everyone on the 13-person email chain for their take. Each emailed clip has certain information: if a penalty was called on the play, whether a player was injured, when the offending player's next game is and if he has discipline history.

Not factors in determining if a hit is illegal are a player's discipline history and whether an injury resulted, Burke said. But those things are factors in determining a suspension's length.

If the consensus is a hit is suspension-worthy, with Quintal having the final call, a phone hearing is held, typically the following day. On the line are department senior staff members, the offending player, his agent, the general manager of the player's team and a representative from the players union, among others.

If a suspension is issued, the department puts a video online, on Twitter @NHLPlayerSafety and nhl.com.playersafety, to explain why.

On the de Haan-Drouin hit, it was quickly determined supplemental discipline wasn't merited, through application of Rule No. 48 on illegal hits to the head. Was the head the main point of contact? Was it a hit on a vulnerable player? The answer to both questions was yes. But Drouin admittedly put himself in a vulnerable spot by putting his head down while reaching for the puck along the wall. To Burke and the staff, it was unanimous: de Haan, trying to hit through the body, couldn't avoid hitting Drouin's head.

Burke said the department might end up using that clip in an educational video.

"That one was a really bad end result for a really talented hockey player that nobody likes to see," he said.

Even the ones reviewing it.

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