- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

SUNRISE, Fla. — It reached the point where the NHL’s suspension process was so mysterious and unclear that it was a running joke. An online “Wheel of Justice” was created to predict a player’s supplemental discipline after a questionable incident.

That changed this season with Brendan Shanahan being named vice president of player safety. The league also implemented a suspension process with video explanations designed to bring transparency to a process that was shrouded in secrecy for so long.

Four months into this experiment and a week after Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin received a three-game suspension, the system still is a work in progress despite generally positive reviews from players.

“I always say, whether you agree or you disagree, it shows the level of work that we put into it. And it actually forces us to be better,” Shanahan said last weekend in Ottawa. “I’ve had about five or six hearings now where evidence has been put to us that maybe in the past, I could’ve said, ‘Well, it’s pretty compelling evidence, but we’re still going to suspend him for three games and that’s the end of that.’

“If we can’t really prove it on a video - the video forces us to ask ourselves those questions.”

Plenty of questions remain, especially when hits happen that don’t lead to suspensions. The same day Ovechkin was handed a three-game ban for charging Zbynek Michalek, the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman escaped punishment for an elbow to the head of Capitals forward Matt Hendricks.

It’s believed that no fine or suspension was given because Michalek appeared to lose his balance, but the NHL did not give an official explanation. Because of that, some, such as Caps forward Jeff Halpern, don’t give glowing reviews about the video process.

“Well, it doesn’t explain the other ones,” Halpern said. “There’s a lot of other ones that don’t happen; you don’t get an explanation for. I don’t know if it really helps.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner pointed out that the Capitals had “theories” about why Michalek wasn’t suspended but didn’t want to comment further. That specific case will go down as one in a vast sea of borderline-to-dirty hits this season that go unpunished, but the issue of explanation is still there.

“I think they need to really kind of lay it down as clear as day and as simple as possible because people are always going to wonder why,” Alzner said. “And if it’s not out there so a 10-year-old can understand it, then somebody’s going to always ask the question.”

Later in the week, Shanahan posted on Twitter some brief reasons why certain players did not receive supplemental discipline for questionable plays. It’s not a full video, but it’s progress.

So why not videos for every hearing?

“Too busy, man. We’d be making videos all day every day,” Shanahan said. “It’s a timing issue. I do believe that players deserve more credit. We’re not exactly where we want to be, and we all know that.”

Before Shanahan’s video explanations came new rules to curb blindside hits and hits to the head. That’s something Capitals general manager George McPhee says has gone a long way toward eliminating gray areas in what kinds of hits are acceptable and which ones will earn penalties, fines and/or suspensions.

But like the discipline process itself, it’s far from perfect.

“It’s hard. It’s a big adjustment. A lot of these players have played a certain way for 20 years growing up, and we all grew up doing it,” McPhee said last week. “And we watched the players before us, and we did the same things they did. And now things have changed. We’re certainly supportive of where we’re going in the league, and certain hits have to be eliminated in the game. We’re all for that.”

Concussions are up this year, but commissioner Gary Bettman said in his state of the league address last weekend that a lot are from pucks to the head and accidents.

According to Shanahan, the rule changes have improved the game and cut down on unnecessary or reckless hits.

“It’s unfortunate that the only time people see or hear from me is when I’m punishing a player or suspending a player for doing it, because quite often we see on a nightly basis players making safer, smarter, more respectful decisions for their opposition around the boards and maybe we should make more videos of that again just to remind people,” he said.

“Just to remind people some of the things that might go unseen to the average viewer, we’re sitting in our review room saying ‘Look at that play by that player. What would he have done a year or two ago?’ “

Even with that improvement and the video showing tangible evidence, some still question the way the league doles out punishment. Alzner said there sometimes are “hidden reasons” why certain guys aren’t suspended, and there’s no set appeals process in place.

Said NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr: “Whenever you have a system in which somebody can say, I conclude, more or less as a prosecutor, that there’s a violation of the agreement and you have X penalty and the penalty is substantial, and you don’t have anything which resembles what anybody in the U.S. or Canada would call due process, you have philosophical issues which are raised.”

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