Commentary

No rhyme or reason to NHL's 'discipline'

Updated: March 16, 2010, 11:55 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Ever see the movie "Memento"?

Its star, Guy Pearce, plays a man who has short-term memory loss, and as he hunts for his wife's killer, he must constantly remind himself what he's after and what he has done by writing himself notes or tattooing messages to himself on his body. He wakes up every day as if it's his first day on the case. He has no idea what he has done or what he's about to do, except for the notes he has scribbled to himself.

We imagine NHL head disciplinarian Colin Campbell in the same way, waking up every day and looking down at the information in front of him as though it's the first day he has encountered any of it, trying to make sense of it all.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAlex Ovechkin was suspended Monday for his boarding hit on Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell. It was the Capitals captain's second suspension of the season.

"Suspend Alex Ovechkin, but not for too long," Monday's note must have said.

"Look for way to suspend Matt Cooke," another message might have read, although that one apparently blew out the door when Campbell picked up his morning paper.

"Ignore Steve Downie," another might read, given that that's what Campbell did in failing to suspend Downie after the Tampa Bay Lightning forward looked to deliberately bring down Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby from behind Sunday with a potentially devastating knee twist.

We laugh until we cry.

That's what the NHL has become when it comes to discipline.

The world of what is right and wrong in the NHL as it relates to on-ice behavior is in such a ragged state of affairs that whatever emerges is what we expected to emerge because there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. Not anymore.

Each new suspension -- or nonsuspension, as was the case with Cooke's hit on Marc Savard -- is like the first. Each incident is its own delicate snowflake unlike any of the other snowflakes in the blizzard of chaos that envelops the NHL. Precedent comes into it when it's convenient and is ignored when it's not. And there's always some mumbo jumbo about following the rulebook in rationalizing a suspension or a decision not to suspend, depending on the time of day.

Which is why we were not surprised when Campbell and the NHL handed Ovechkin a two-game suspension Monday for the Washington Capitals star's hit on Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell.

If Ovechkin had been given 10 games, we would have been neither surprised nor shocked. If Colin Campbell had given Ovechkin a stern talking-to and a fine, we would have been equally surprised, or not surprised, as the case may be.

Look at the Downie check on Crosby and the Ovechkin push on Brian Campbell that gave the Caps star his second two-game suspension of the season, then tell us which was the more dangerous play.

Crosby was essentially wiped out from behind by Downie well away from the puck, and Campbell, who seems to stumble just as Ovechkin launches him into the end boards, is hit sort of from the side, sort of from behind. We're not excusing the Ovechkin hit, nor do we take umbrage with the call on the ice, which was a major for boarding and a game misconduct. We're just trying to figure out how we got from A to B.

For instance, is Ovechkin suspended and Downie not because it turns out Brian Campbell might be gone for the season and Crosby miraculously is not? If that's the case, the league should acknowledge that it is going to suspend players based on the severity of the injury incurred as a result of an incident.

We don't mind that, really. Of course, that's not the league's policy, though, is it?

If the league connected injury to discipline, it would hardly have allowed Mike Richards to skate after ruining David Booth's season with a blindside hit, would it? Richards was ejected from that game against the Florida Panthers in October, and the league could have hammered the Philadelphia Flyers forward, which is what it should have done. But it didn't. Then, the NHL couldn't very well suspend Cooke for ending Savard's season because that blindside hit didn't even draw a penalty. (At least that was the fine print on the league's decision to ignore the Cooke hit.)

The fact there was no penalty called on the play didn't stop Campbell from suspending Maxim Lapierre of the Montreal Canadiens for four games after he cross checked Scott Nichol of the San Jose Sharks into the boards a couple of weeks ago. Just in case you were trying to draw a line from A to B to C.

So, now you have Cooke not suspended for a hit 10 times more dangerous than Ovechkin's hit on Campbell and Ovechkin gone for two. Well, that pretty much makes everything OK.

"Look at us, we're suspending a star player. Look, we're not really paralyzed." All the Ovechkin suspension has done is reinforce the widely held perception -- within the league and beyond -- that the NHL has no idea what it's doing when it comes to handing out supplemental discipline.

Because here's the thing. If Colin Campbell really believed Ovechkin's hit was reckless, he should have thrown the book at him. Ovechkin is a repeat offender -- that was noted in the NHL's news release that accompanied the suspension Monday afternoon -- so why not 10 games? If it's about creating a deterrent to dangerous play, make it a deterrent.

The thing is, the earlier suspension seemed to do exactly what it was designed to do: modify Ovechkin's behavior. In the 23 games before Sunday's contest, Ovechkin had three minors for six minutes, none of which was for a hitting violation. In the 39 games since his suspension, Ovechkin had 11 minors, three of them coming in an altercation with Downie (hey, where did we hear his name?). One of the minors was for diving.

But this isn't about making a statement or taking a stand, it's about optics and public pressure and trying to do damage control in the wake of the Richards and Cooke fiascoes.

Too late. That ship has sailed friends.

At this stage, the NHL has zero credibility when it comes to handing out discipline. Which is why the Ovechkin suspension means nothing on almost every level except the $232,645.40 the suspension will mean to the players' emergency fund, which is the recipient of the lost pay that comes with these suspensions.

This will be so until the NHL has the gumption to make meaningful change to the way it does business, until it tears down the Star Chamber and replaces Colin Campbell with a more effective, more transparent form of justice, one the players and coaches and fans can understand and accept.

Start with standard levels of suspensions for certain acts. A boarding major such as the one Ovechkin was assessed Sunday would carry a sliding scale starting with five games and moving to 10 games for a second offense, and so on. Assess standard suspensions for repeat offenders. Let's start at 10 games for a second suspension and go from there.

Have a panel made up of GMs, players and league officials come up with the scale and stick to it. No hearings, no fine print. "If you do this, this is what will happen to you."

Want to know what will happen? Players will stop doing those things.

They don't stop now because they have no idea what will happen to them. No one does. Not even Colin Campbell.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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