A decade or two ago, the standard line from NHL coaches and general managers after one of their players took a dirty hit was: “We’re sending the tape to the league.” They would pull a VHS tape out of the VCR and snail-mail it to league headquarters. ¶ When Damian Echevarrieta came to work for the NHL in 1999, there was no Department of Player Safety. Echevarrieta helped set up a room with various televisions. Games were recorded on VHS, so staffers had to wait until games ended to review an incident. That tape would then be forwarded from New York to the NHL’s Toronto office for Colin Campbell to view, often times by using a flight attendant working a trip there as a courier. ¶ “My first year, we rigged a satellite dish in a corner conference room pointing out the window of the 46th floor and ran wires through the ceiling to our makeshift video room,” said Echevarrieta, now the NHL’s Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations. “One night we lost the signal on all games. I run down and find the cleaning woman dusting the blinds had let the blinds down and blocked the dish. ¶ “The cleaning lady shut down the NHL for 10 minutes.”
Today, the Department of Player Safety ‘‘war room’’ is on the 12th floor of the Manhattan building that contains the NHL’s offices. The room is not the same as the league’s Situation Room in Toronto, where every goal is reviewed. In New York, every second of every game is watched, but the purpose is to log anything notable — from accidental collisions, to clean checks, to incidents that might require supplemental discipline and much more. They even monitor whether broadcasters are getting rules right or wrong and beat-writer Twitter accounts to ensure incidents are correctly reported to fans.
The Player Safety room has 12 high-definition TVs and workstations that include 10 monitors that show the home and road feeds for every game. Stephane Quintal, in his fifth month as Brendan Shanahan’s replacement as senior VP of player safety, runs a department made up of Echevarrieta, Director of Player Safety Patrick Burke, manager Evan Rand and coordinators Paul Treyman, Chris Nastro, Peter Livera and Michael Grover. They are assigned usually one game each night to log everything on a laptop.
Based in St. Louis, 2000 league MVP Chris Pronger now works in the department. Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine advises in an unofficial capacity, and Quintal is looking to hire more ex-players.
Tacked to the walls are depth charts for all 30 teams, lists of repeat offenders (if you’re suspended twice in 18 months, your lost salary is per game, not per day) and lists of prior incidents (suspensions or not) that can be used for quick reference
The Wild’s Matt Cooke, fined or suspended 10 times, is famous in that room. Even the Wild’s Zach Parise is on the wall for his game misconduct for cross-checking Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler on Oct. 17. If Parise gets another stick-related game misconduct within 41 games, he is automatically suspended one game.
One night in New York
Nov. 9 was a pretty mundane night in the room. Not a single incident in five games rose up the supplemental discipline pole. The department, after no suspension in the season’s first 18 days, was just coming off a stretch of seven suspensions totaling 22 games in 10 days.
The men working the games are like passionate fans at a sports bar, minus the beers.
When Senators goalie Robin Lehner robbed Toronto’s Phil Kessel with his paddle, everybody screamed. When Lightning star Steven Stamkos scored against Detroit, somebody suggested, “You probably shouldn’t leave Steven Stamkos alone in the high slot.”
When Echevarrieta asked who No. 37 was on the Ducks, Burke chimed in, “Mat Clark” … and off the top of head emitted a detailed scouting report like the defenseman was a veteran of 1,000 games, not three.
They talked about vulgar tweets they receive from fans at their @NHLPlayerSafety Twitter account (and yes, they read each one, partly for their own amusement). They talked about the phone hearing the next morning for Dallas’ Antoine Roussel, who sucker-punched San Jose’s Justin Braun the night before (he later would be fined). They talked about Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon getting a boarding major for which he wasn’t suspended.
At one point, the staff double-checked a hit by the Rangers’ Marc Staal. Later, Burke and Echevarrieta were asked to look at Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey’s big run at Vancouver’s Jannik Hansen. After a few views, the men knew it was a clean shoulder-on-shoulder check, but it still was clipped and saved.
Compare and contrast
Basically, the league is building a library of video archives in case there are future incidents between the players, or incidents they can use as comparables.
When Cooke was suspended seven games for kneeing Colorado’s Tyson Barrie in last season’s playoffs, the NHL didn’t have to look hard to recall that Cooke got off for a similar kneeing incident a few weeks earlier on Dallas’ Valeri Nichushkin.
“It’s funny how with the corner of your eye you know, ‘Oh, something just happened,’ in a game you’re not watching,” Burke said.
Reviewable incidents are inserted into clipping software, to be viewed frame by frame. This enables the league to examine different angles or zoom in and out. The league can tell down to a 10th of a second how long a hit takes place after a player no longer has the puck (0.6 to 0.7 seconds is too late). On illegal checks to the head, the league can tell within a fraction of an inch the main point of contact.
If there’s even a chance the hit is questionable, the home/away clips are sent to about a dozen people with bullet point lines: What happened? Was there an injury? Does the offending player have a history? When does his team play next?
Quintal asks his team for thoughts, which are sent only to Quintal so other opinions aren’t influenced.
The first thing you notice when you are in the Department of Player Safety is the neutrality.
Fans often see supplemental discipline through the prism of the what happened to their favorite player or team, not the thousands of hits these guys watch on a daily basis. Echevarrieta’s mind is like a catalog of years of incidents; he can reel off example after example as if they occurred yesterday.
“It’s amazing to me how few people know the actual rules,” Echevarrieta said. “Hitting in the head isn’t necessarily illegal. One day it might be, but right now, it’s not. It’s called illegal check to the head for a reason. Sometimes hitting in the head is inevitable.”
The Rangers’ John Moore was suspended five games in October for hitting the Wild’s Erik Haula in the head. In the same game, Chris Kreider got a boarding major on Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin, but he wasn’t suspended. The NHL’s standard is when a player suddenly stops short like Brodin did, he essentially precludes the forechecker from making a good decision. The league believed Kreider had to believe he had six to eight more feet to determine how to check Brodin or avoid contact completely.
There are all sorts of educational videos for players, fans or media at nhl.com/playersafety.
Still, like Parise, if Kreider gets another game misconduct in the same category within 41 games, he will be automatically suspended.
Quintal was at the Wild-Rangers game. He brought his 9-year-old son to meet Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, Quintal’s former coach.
After the incidents, Quintal said, laughing, “I told my son, ‘Let’s go back to the office.’ ”
When it’s determined there likely will be a suspension or fine, a hearing ensues. A phone hearing means a suspension can be five or fewer games. An in-person hearing gives the NHL the ability to suspend a player for six or more games. Hearings include the player and his GM, his agent, a players’ association rep, attorneys and Quintal, Echevarrieta, Burke and Pronger.
“The only guy fighting for the injured player is us,” Quintal said.
Finding a formula
The NHL tries to be transparent with all disciplinary decisions, not just to educate but to create accountability. Burke lives a block from the office so he can hustle in to narrate suspension explanation videos.
It drives the department nuts when critics say they throw darts at a wall to determine suspension lengths. It’s known as the “Wheel of Justice.”
“If you pay attention, we’re consistent to a fault,” Echevarrieta said.
He says there’s a formula. An illegal check to the head, for example, starts with two games with more tacked on if there’s a previous history or injury. Injuries and history matter because the collective bargaining agreement mandates they do, Echevarrieta says.
“Our job is to make the game safer,” Echevarrieta said. “I can’t tell you how many hearings we’re on where the player’s like, ‘We’re buddies, we train together in the summer, he was in my wedding party.’ Most of these guys are good guys, but these weren’t good plays.”
In 2010, the NHL didn’t suspend Cooke for his head shot on Marc Savard because, at the time, it wasn’t illegal.
“We could have suspended him and nobody would have been upset,” Echevarrieta said. “But he didn’t break a rule. We all knew it was kind of dirty, it didn’t feel right, but I really believe because we stuck with the rule book and didn’t suspend him, that’s how we got the illegal check to the head.
“We’re always trying to do what’s right and fair for everybody in the game.”