Friday, October 17, 2008

The NHL Injury Policy: Why Can't the League Trust the Players to Be Honorable?

The most commonly cited justification for the NHL's secretive injury disclosure policy is that it protects the players. Teams do not want the weaknesses of players who are playing hurt or have just returned from an injury to be exploited.

For example, Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton is thought to have a hand injury. The reason we don't know that for certain is that the Islanders don't want Sutton to be the recipient of extra whacks to the hand upon his return.

But don't NHL players compete within the framework of a code of honor? Don't they follow guidelines for what is right and wrong on the ice?

Just this past Monday, Bill Guerin described a multiplayer brawl between his teammates and members of the Buffalo Sabres, and the consequences of that brawl, as honest, presumably within the confines of the code.

The Sabres were taking it to the Isles, and Nate Thompson initiated with Adam Mair in an attempt to shake things up. As a result of the ensuing melee, Sean Bergenheim and Brendan Witt were tossed from the game, leaving the Isles short a forward and a defenseman. Guerin had no problem with his teammates' actions because they were committed in the name of standing up for each other.

Opponents of the third-man-in rule long for the days when players were permitted to fully police themselves on the ice. Dishonorable actions were noted and punishments were dispensed before officials had cause to intervene.

Last year Sean Avery was roundly criticized for his stick-waving antics in front of Martin Brodeur in the playoffs. His tactics were viewed by many as disrespectful. It would not surprise me if Avery's trip outside the bounds of normal sportsmanship played a large role, at least on par with his contract expectations, in the Rangers' decision not to bring him back—even if other players publicly denied being embarrassed.

With so much emphasis on principled behavior, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect a level of restraint among players in the presence of opponents with known injuries?

I'm not advocating for going easy on a guy in the heat of competition. I am suggesting that players can engage without taking cheap shots at a player with the intent to re-injure him.

When Radek Martinek returns from his shoulder injury, he is fair game for being separated from the puck by a hit that impacts that shoulder. If the injury cannot withstand the vigors of regular gameplay, then either he is not really ready or he simply must cope with his fragility. But a hit that intends only to separate his shoulder is dishonorable.

Perhaps I am incorrect and players feel that exploiting such a weakness is indeed a fair part of a very physical game and the injury policy does provide a layer of protection. But even if there is merit to the argument, and it is not too much to expect players to take the high road, the issue has some thorns. Owners, with so many millions of dollars at stake, are likely to cling to the policy rather than risk exposing expensive assets. And there will always be a handful of players who, regardless of peer pressure and basic decency, choose not to follow a code.

Are there any other reasons why the on-ice code of honor can't extend to injuries and make the policy of secrecy unnecessary?


Dominik said...

Not only do I agree with you -- and am miffed by the policy (It's an entertainment industry that depends on information!) -- I think it's harder in this day to "target" an injured body part. With all the cameras, two refs, and actually enforced rulebook, you can't get away with the blatant slashes you used to get away with in the process of hooking a puck carrier.

And like you said, I don't mind the "lower body" thing as much in the playoffs because when you have repeated games against the same team, there's more potential incentive to risk penalties/suspension by targeting an injured limb/joint.

Dominik said...

Whoops, just remembered it was Mike who mentioned playoffs (I just read both posts on this topic), but my applause still stands.

I like your thought about Avery in the NYR situation, too. Very interesting the conditions in which they let him walk...