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Bettman has drawn a line in the sand for future offenses

9/13/2007 - NHL

In many ways, the NHL's suspension of Mark Bell for 15 games on top of his placement in the second phase of the league's substance abuse and behavioral health program was a no-brainer.

An impaired Bell plowed into a parked pick-up truck near San Jose a year ago and then fled the scene. He pleaded guilty to charges related to the accident and will serve a six-month jail term at the end of this coming NHL season. He was lucky no one was killed, and according to various media reports, has stopped drinking and has turned his life around.

But with the blizzard of bad news that has dogged the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA this summer, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could afford to come down heavily on Bell and he did.

"Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility for exemplary conduct off the ice as well as on it," Bettman said in a statement.
Bettman called Bell's conduct "a violation of our covenant with our fans, and to the game, and is prejudicial to the welfare of the league."


The sentiments echo those of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who pretty much has to trot out the same line once a week, given the behavior of his players. And if it sounds a little like the little brother mimicking the big brother, when it comes to drawing a line in the behavioral sand, that too is OK.

But now what?

Having used his powers as commissioner to suspend a player outside the framework of the substance abuse and behavioral program, where does Bettman go from here?

"Where do you draw the line? That's the million-dollar question," former NHLPA executive member and longtime team rep Kevyn Adams said at the opening of the Chicago Blackhawks training camp Thursday.

"I think there has to be a balance," he said.

And that's the key, isn't it, balancing the need to reinforce a code of conduct for the league's players with the need for fairness and, in some cases, compassion.

Bettman acknowledged Bell's apparent efforts to turn his life around following the near-tragic incidents of a year ago.

"However, over the past year, Mark has made extraordinary strides in his rehabilitation. This positive progress was a material factor in reducing what could have been a lengthier suspension," Bettman said. "The NHL supports Mark's commitment to learning from his past mistakes and his efforts to move his life forward in a positive direction."

Early on, the league seems to have shown that such balance is in place.

ESPN.com has learned the NHL is not looking at incidents involving Staal brothers Eric and Jordan and Florida Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester with an eye toward additional sanctions.

The Staal brothers were involved in an incident at a Minnesota resort during Eric's stag weekend and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Jordan was also charged with under-age drinking. Both players are expected to resolve the legal matter with a plea arrangement in the near future. Bouwmeester recently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence after an incident in Edmonton last summer. He was fined $1,000 and prohibited from driving in Canada for a year.

Both players, by virtue of the combination of alcohol and the involvement of law enforcement officials, will automatically be involved with the first phase of the substance abuse and behavioral program that is jointly operated by the league and the players' association. There is no penalty involved with the first phase of the program, provided the established guidelines are followed.

As they should be.

By allowing relatively minor incidents -- no one was injured in either situation -- to be handled by the mechanisms that have been in place for years to deal with off-ice problems, Bettman doesn't put himself in a position where he has to weigh in on every little misstep.

Instead, the Bell suspension stands as a warning for other players and officials that the league will not stand idly by if they make headlines for off-ice behavior. As a result, you can expect disgraced former player and Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet to take a similar hit -- likely to the end of the season -- after pleading guilty to misdemeanor gambling charges. There is no timetable for the league to deal with the Tocchet situation.

The PA formally complained that the Bell suspension was cruel and unusual.

"The NHLPA sees no basis for the excessive suspension Gary Bettman has imposed upon Mark Bell," union associate counsel Ian Penney said in a statement.

"There is no legitimate purpose served by adding a substantial league disciplinary suspension to the severe sanctions that have already been imposed," Penney added. "We are currently reviewing all of our legal options with respect to this matter."

Still, it's doubtful many players around the league would have much issue with the Bell suspension both as it relates to his actions and the message it sends to the game's fans.

"I think ultimately it's part of our responsibility as players" to be held to a higher standard, Adams said. "It's really a reflection of the time we're in in sports."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.