Commentary

How to fix NHL's disciplinary process? Get it out in the open

Updated: March 17, 2008, 11:05 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Well, thank goodness the NHL's version of the Zapruder tape finally showed up or we might have never realized Chris Pronger did actually channel Chris Simon in stomping on a defenseless Ryan Kesler on Wednesday night.

Were it not for the miraculous appearance of the incriminating videotape some time after the league's head of discipline, Colin Campbell, exonerated Pronger, the NHL might never have gotten around to suspending the Anaheim defenseman as it did over the weekend.

Now, you can quibble with the eight-game suspension that will take Pronger to Anaheim's final regular-season game, but this latest Keystone Cops routine is yet another example of how the NHL's disciplinary process is deeply flawed and needs an overhaul.

Chris Pronger
AP/John UlanChris Pronger is eligible to return April 6 for the Ducks' regular-season finale against Phoenix.

At the very least, the public perception of how the league metes out justice is in need of repair.

One NHL general manager described the league's disciplinary process as being akin to the Star Chamber, a reference to an ancient English court whose proceedings were shrouded in secrecy and, in many ways, believed to be unjust.

Another GM recently told ESPN.com that the league has kept the disciplining of players very much a closed process and that GMs, players and coaches offer up opinion on suspensions at their own peril. In short, league officials, mainly Campbell, have a long memory when it comes to people carping about how the job gets done.

Granted, it is a difficult job. Campbell is presumably well compensated for doing it. There often appears to be a double standard or, at the very least, a confused standard in how suspensions are handed down (how is the Pronger incident one-third as egregious as the Simon stomp on Jarkko Ruutu?), eroding the public's confidence in the league to keep its players in line.

So, what can be done?

The Toronto Maple Leafs could hire Campbell as their GM and the NHL would be forced to bring in another person who might be able to introduce more consistency to the process. But what might be best for the league is to open up the entire process, regardless of whose hand is on the ax.

Remember at the end of the lockout when the NHL pledged to be more open, media friendly and accessible to its fans? Well, this is a good place to make good on that promise.

After all, what do Americans love almost as much as a governor getting caught with a call girl? Courtroom dramas. "CSI," "Law and Order," "People's Court," "Judge Judy" -- we are a society obsessed with justice and how it is achieved in all its many forms. This is a perfect opportunity for the NHL to appeal to fans by opening the doors on its own courtroom to the public.

One of the basic principles of the North American court system is that an open court is a just court. A closed court, by extension, is a court in which the seeds of doubt about whether justice is served are always present. It is why many of the NHL's decisions are regularly (and quietly) questioned by team officials and ridiculed by the media.

Why not make the process like a regular court?

Surely there is room in the NHL's process for a stronger voice from the victim of these acts? And most important, why not establish a process by which the media can cover these events as they would any court proceeding. Whether it's in person or via conference call or another manner, the give and take between the accused, the victim and the league should be open and accessible to ensure that justice is done.

The timing couldn't be better for such changes.

This week, hockey writer Luke DeCock of The (Raleigh) News & Observer produced a study that showed the NHL appears to favor Canadian teams in handing out discipline. Almost one-third of suspensions came against teams playing one of the six Canadian squads, while only five of 50 suspensions this season were levied against players from Canadian teams. It's a thought-provoking bit of data. League officials insist it is merely a coincidence, and they're probably right. But if the process was truly open, it might not be anything more than an interesting note. In the current shadowy world of NHL discipline, such data reinforces the Star Chamber atmosphere surrounding the league's handling of justice.

The NHL likes to think it is ahead of the curve on many fronts, including the use of new media and appealing to fans in nontraditional ways. This would be another area in which the league could provide groundbreaking access to media and fans.

Who knows? If players knew their disciplinary hearings were going to be subject to scrutiny from the media, a la traditional court reporting, perhaps they'd be less likely to stomp, slash, gouge or kick opponents.

What a novel idea.

Slap shots


Cheechoo

Good week
Guess all of those questions about coach Ron Wilson's job being in jeopardy and whether his Sharks have any heart can be put on the backburner, at least for awhile. That's what an 11-game winning streak will do for you, especially when eight of those wins come away from home. The Sharks, puzzlingly ordinary for most of the regular season, appear to be peaking at the right time if you believe regular-season momentum begets playoff success (sometimes it does, sometimes it means doodley squat, but we digress).

In terms of having the right frame of mind heading into a crucial postseason for the franchise, San Jose's winning streak has reaffirmed what many observers believed about this team at the start of the season: It is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Jonathan Cheechoo has roared back to life with 18 goals and 23 points in 27 games leading up to Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss to Edmonton that ended San Jose's winning streak. The blue line, of course, has been buoyed by the arrival of former Buffalo rearguard Brian Campbell, who's recorded at least a point in eight of 10 games since arriving at the trade deadline and might well be the missing Cup piece the Sharks have been searching for the past couple of seasons. Even captain Patrick Marleau, the source of endless trade speculation since last season's playoffs, has come around (19 points in 26 games).

Bad week
It wasn't long ago that we were heralding the St. Louis Blues for turning a significant corner in their rebuilding process. President John Davidson and GM Larry Pleau were being feted for having accelerated a process in which the Blues fell to the bottom of the NHL standings and lost touch with a loyal fan base. Whoops. That corner has turned into a dead end. With three weeks to go in the regular season, the Blues are on a collision course with a draft lottery position with just one win in their last 13 games. A team that was supposed to be deep and talented along the blue line has come unglued, allowing four or more goals in six straight games through Saturday's 5-2 loss to Anaheim. Offensively, the well has also gone dry for the Blues, who failed to score more than three goals in any of those 13 games. It's hard to believe that management will make a coaching change in the offseason given the early success Andy Murray had when he came in midway through last season. But the team's second-half collapse has to raise some serious concerns about the team's coaching system, personnel, or both.

Stuck in neutral
The Philadelphia Flyers, who once upon a time sat at the top of the Atlantic Division, are suddenly stutter-stepping their way out of the playoff picture. They woke up Monday morning in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, just one point ahead of Buffalo and two points up on surging Washington and Florida, of all teams. They are 2-3-3 in their past eight, including a 7-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. With Mike Richards back in the lineup, Philly should get a boost. It better.

Our top story lines of the week


Hasek
1. So, Pronger gets to cool his blades as a result of his delayed suspension for stomping on Kesler. Whether Pronger's eighth career suspension has a direct impact on the Ducks' Stanley Cup defense will be known soon enough. The Ducks, who have lost just twice in regulation over their past 10 games, were in hot pursuit of the San Jose Sharks for first in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division. If the Ducks can't catch the Sharks -- and that task will be made more difficult in Pronger's absence given that the big lug leads the Ducks in ice time (26:05) -- it's almost certain Anaheim will play an improved Dallas team in the first round, and they could end up the lower seed. If they advance, the Ducks then face the possibility of a second-round matchup against West-leading Detroit barring a first-round upset. That's a much tougher road to follow, at least in theory, than if the Ducks were to finish atop the division and earn the second seed, as they did last season.

2. Yes, the playoffs are still three weeks away, but if you're the Detroit Red Wings, you can't be all that comfortable with how things are looking between the pipes down the stretch. After being one of the feel-good stories of the first half of the season, Chris Osgood has returned to ordinary and is 3-6-1 in his last 10 decisions. Dominik Hasek, the Wings' playoff starter if he's healthy, has been bothered by a bad back to go along with his wonky hip. Hasek returned to action Sunday against Columbus and got the hook after giving up four goals on 10 shots in a 4-3 loss. Hasek somehow managed to allow three goals on six shots in less than six minutes of play in the second period to punctuate his return. The Wings will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, but unless Hasek can return to the same form in which he led the Wings to last season's Western Conference finals, many will be wondering about the possibility of a repeat of the 2006 playoffs, when the Wings were knocked off by the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers.

3. It will be interesting to see how the Chicago Blackhawks handle Martin Havlat in the offseason. The ever-brittle forward is gone for the season after another shoulder injury. He has played in just 109 games over the past three seasons, far less than half the games for which he's been paid to play. The Blackhawks will need to build on this season's successes on and off the ice, and it's hard to imagine Havlat being part of that moving forward. The problem is, of course, the Blackhawks are on the hook for $6 million next season. That's a lot of money and cap space if Chicago was of a mind to buy out the gifted but injury-prone forward. But it might be easier than trying to find a partner in a trade unless, of course, the team was willing to take on another team's onerous baggage. The Hawks did just that last summer in a deal with Montreal in which they took Sergei Samsonov (whom they later waived) in exchange for Jassen Cullimore and Tony Salmelainen.

4. It's a pretty small sample, but the Los Angeles Kings have to love what they've seen with their late-season goaltending experiment involving 26-year-old Erik Ersberg. The undrafted native of Sala, Sweden, has turned aside 201 of the 214 shots he's faced in seven appearances for an impressive .939 save percentage. He's also paced the sad-sack Kings to victories over Ottawa and Nashville. Ersberg is the fifth netminder to be thrust into action for the Kings this season as they continue their search for a viable NHL starter. If Ersberg can build on this success, he could make things interesting for GM Dean Lombardi in the offseason and at training camp next fall with youngster Jonathan Bernier probably still another season or two away from competing for the top job in L.A.

5. Speaking of young netminders auditioning for next season, Mike Smith is starting to win over fans in Tampa Bay after a rocky start to his tenure as Bolts goaltender of the future. Smith, part of the Brad Richards deadline deal with Dallas, had lost five of his first six starts with Tampa, but has now won two straight over playoff contenders following his 20-save shutout of the New York Rangers on Saturday. That followed a 35-save performance in a victory over Boston on Thursday. Smith, who learned how to handle the puck from Dallas' Marty Turco and is brimming with confidence, has his sights set on the starter's role in Tampa Bay next season as the team is desperate to find a goaltender who can shoulder the load after multiple experiments failed since the lockout. Sources tell ESPN.com they think Smith is the real deal. If so, it should herald a return to contention for the Bolts, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.