The game of hockey is a fast-paced, emotional game. Decisions have to be made in a split second and the high levels of intensity can often result in questionable decision making. Some players play the game with a passion that makes them infamous throughout the league. Guys that you hate to play against, but would love to have on your team. One player who has gained such a reputation throughout the NHL is Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
Marchand recently completed a six-game suspension for punching and high-sticking Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry. Since the suspension was longer than five games, Marchand had the chance to appeal to Commissioner Gary Bettman. Bettman upheld the suspension, stating his conduct was “intentional and involved an excessive and unnecessary use of force” against “an unsuspecting player.” The NHLPA argued on appeal that the suspension should have been four games at most. The NHLPA pointed to a two-game suspension given to Milan Lucic for a punch, the lack of a suspension to Joe Thornton for punching goalie Peter Mrazek in 2019, and a two-game suspension to Radko Gudas for a high-stick as comparable acts. The NHLPA argued Marchand’s conduct was less egregious, but his disciplinary history would double an assumed two-game suspension.
Marchand is the most disciplined player in NHL history in terms of suspensions, and he has been suspended eight times throughout his career to date. Marchand has publicly argued his actions were “not suspension-worthy” and the hefty length was based more on reputation than anything else. Teammate Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron agreed, stating, “I understand [that Marchand] has got a history. I understand all that . . . But that being said , I don’t think it is a six-game suspension. That’s what would be my argument, you look around the league and I don’t think the same type of plays have had that stiff of a punishment.”
The attention this suspension has garnered raises the question of how the NHL determines who receives suspensions and the length of them. The NHL has often been criticized for its lack of consistency in player discipline. Article 18.2 of the CBA indicates that when determining supplemental discipline, the following factors are taken into account:
(a) The type of conduct involved: conduct in violation of League Playing Rules, and whether the conduct is intentional or reckless, and involves the use of excessive and unnecessary force. Players are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
(b) Injury to the opposing Player(s) involved in the incident.
(c) The status of the offender and, specifically, whether the Player has a history of being subject to Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct. Players who repeatedly violate League Playing Rules will be more severely punished for each new violation.
(d) The situation of the game in which the incident occurred, for example: late in the game, lopsided score, prior events in the game.
(e) Such other factors as may be appropriate in the circumstances.
Further, the NHL Department of Player Safety factors in whether a player is a “repeat offender.” A player is defined as a “repeat offender” for 18 months following the most recent incident that resulted in a suspension. Even if a player is not defined as a “repeat offender,” his past history may come into consideration when determining future Supplemental Discipline. The use of past history as a factor in determining future discipline is encoded in Article 18.2(c) of the CBA.
However, the NHL does not have a set process for considering and weighing these factors. Nobody knows what conduct merits a suspension. The the idea of considering past history in determining future suspensions makes sense because more violations of the rules indicates a greater probability the player will violate them again. However, it raises the question of why conduct that is less egregious but by a “repeat offender” is punished the same or greater than more egregious conduct by a player without a reputation for violating the rules. For example, earlier in the 2021-22 season, Marchand was suspended three games for slew-footing. At the time, Marchand was not even considered a “repeat offender.” New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban has had multiple incidents of slew-footing players this season and has yet to receive a suspension. He has only received is fines in an increasing amount because he is considered a “repeat offender.” Why was P.K. Subban not suspended for the exact same conduct that resulted in a three-game suspension for Marchand? Similarly, earlier this season, San Jose Sharks forward Kevin Labanc received a one game suspension for slew-footing. Where is the consistency?
Doesn’t it seem like the NHL has a very arbitrary process for determining what results in a suspension and for how long? It almost seems like there is no standard process for reviewing on-ice incidents. Does the NHL Department of Player Safety look at the name of the player and consider the conduct more or less suspension-worthy just based upon the player’s reputation?
So, what role does reputation play in impacting the length of suspensions? Some wonder if the difference in player roles on the team factor into the suspension process as well. For example, is Connor McDavid more likely to receive a fine compared to a suspension because he is a superstar and a box office attraction, compared to a 4th line player who is not a household name? If there is any truth to that, it is certainly not fair to less reputable players in the league, and highlights the systematic inconsistency of supplemental discipline in the NHL.
In addition to Marchand, another player who appears to be at a disadvantage due to his reputation in the league is Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Wilson is no stranger to the NHL Department of Player Safety. He has been suspended five times throughout his career to date. Many within the league regard Wilson as a dirty player, and as a result, opposing fans tend to dislike him. One particular incident that raises the issue of inconsistency in suspensions occurred in 2021. Wilson was suspended seven games for a hit on Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo. The interesting part is that Wilson did not even receive a penalty for the hit during the game. If it was not called a penalty on the ice, why is the punishment so severe? It almost appears that because Wilson is almost universally disliked, and Carlo was injured as a result of the hit, the NHL suspended him based on reputation, not for the egregiousness of the conduct.
Based on a reading of the CBA and a consideration of past suspensions, it appears that past history, while supposed to be one of many factors used in the determination of a suspension, is regarded as the most important factor. However, after analyzing the process the NHL utilizes in determining suspensions, one is left with more questions than answers, likely because the process does not appear to make sense on its face. There are gaping holes and inconsistencies in the NHL’s disciplinary process. It will be interesting to see if the NHL will ever apply its rules consistently, especially with respect to supplemental discipline.