Once Again, Hockey Leads the Way

Before I begin, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you to check out Tim Brulia's Week 14 Uniform Matchup Rankings posted to this blog a short time before this article, itself, was posted. Tim and I have been stepping on each other's toes with our blogs for the last few weeks. Unfortunately, quality material sometimes just can't wait.

Honestly, I was a hockey fan before I began following football. Growing up in northwest Pennsylvania, I can remember from a very early age my Dad hooking up the 'rabbit-ear' antennas to our television so that we could dial in on CHCH, CKCO, or CFPL out of Hamilton, Kitchener, and London, Ontario, respectively from across the shores of Lake Erie and watch "Hockey Night in Canada." I learned the words to the Canadian National Anthem before I knew that it wasn't the American Anthem. If I close my eyes (or tune in to youtube) I can still hear Roger "Rogie" Doucet singing in the Forum in Montreal.

In the early 1980s, when I was in middle school, I'd turn on my boom-box at 830PM and dial in to WBBM AM out of Chicago so that I could listen to Pat Foley yell out "BAAANNNNERMAAAAN!" as I was lying in bed. This was how it was in a time before the Internet, youngsters. I've been a Blackhawks fan for even longer than I've been a Bears fan. Needless to say that for the last few years, "It's good to be a 'Hawks fan." The Bears, not so much. But I digress.

The point is, that while a large portion of the sports universe looks down its nose at hockey, every once in a while, hockey does something really wise. A few years ago, the NHL created the Department of Player Safety.  Run by its well-respected, Hockey Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan, it scrutinizes on-ice incidents both of the variety that game officials catch and don't catch.  Each infraction brought to Director Shanahan's attention follows a clear-cut series of guidelines. Infractions are analyzed, suspensions or fines are determined and levied by a former player who toiled in the NHL for 22 years. Video explanations are attached to the NHL's website for all fans to watch and receive an articulate explanation of what happened, why the action necessitated further discipline, and what the terms of any additional penalties would be.

During his career, Shanahan scored 656 regular season goals along with another 60 in playoff action.  He was an 8-time All-Star and 3-time Stanley Cup Champion. Goal scoring was not his only forte. Seventeen times Shanahan accumulated more than 100 penalty minutes in a season. He was never afraid to get his gloves dirty. It is my belief that this unique combination of toughness and goal-scoring prowess made the choice of Shanahan for this position an easy one.

With all of the current angst being aimed by fans at the current NFL Overlord Commissioner for a variety of reasons (some justified and others not..er...well, let's face it. Most of it is deserved) the NFL could take one of those bullseyes off of Roger Goodell. I would like to see the NFL implement its own version of a Department of Player Safety, but with a few alterations.

Due to the fact that each team plays only 20 games in the preseason and regular season combined, suspensions of any length can affect the likelihood of a team making the playoffs. In an 82-game season, and with the ability to 'call up' skilled replacements from teams' minor league affiliates, it is easier for an NHL team to get by in a player's absence.  NFL suspensions, whatever their length, have a greater impact on a team's overall success than in any other league with the possible rare exception of a season-long suspension.

In hockey, players are responsible for both their team's offense and defense. If the NFL organized a DPS with a single director, there would likely be instances where that player's background as either a defensive or offensive player might create a perceived slant in their opinion of an on-field incident. For this reason, a minimum of 2 individuals would be needed - both a retired offensive and defensive player - for each circumstance.

Another aspect to be considered would be the team (or teams) for which the retired players played. NFL players are famous for continuing to represent their former team in an ambassadorial capacity or simply as a fan well beyond the end of their playing career. Others are known to carry a grudge of animosity towards a particular team, including one they may have played for. Would a Baltimore Raven want their fine or suspension overseen by a retired Steeler like Hines Ward? I think not.

That is why my idea would call for a "Council of Elders" of sorts. Thirty-two retired players, one from each team, equally split between offense and defense, and then the tie-breaking vote (if needed) would fall upon the shoulders of the previous NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, (or the current Head of Officiating) keeping Roger Goodell's hands clean of these matters.

An incident involving two NFC teams would require the judgement of the sixteen AFC representatives (8 offense and 8 defense) and vice versa for an incident involving AFC teams. In the event that the incident involves an interconference game, the two teams in question receive no say and the remaining thirty representatives decide the matter, again with someone like "Tags" settling any split decisions should they occur.

These former players would be much better equipped to discern the intent of an incident, much like Shanahan's analysis of the Shawn Thornton incident, and their judgement would be much more respected than that which currently occurs from the office of the Commissioner who, himself, never enjoyed a career in the sport he oversees.

I'm sure that the process could continue to be fine-tuned beyond what I've already laid out above, however, the groundwork is there. Otherwise, the NFL will likely continue down a slippery slope towards something none of us want to see.  A wise man once commented...

You tell him that the quarterback was in the grasp or that he should have pulled up on a defenseless player!
Bill Schaefer

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