Does one punch merit a three-game ban?

If there is one thing guaranteed to spark debate in ice hockey, it’s discipline.

A game that combines speed with an intense physical approach will always produce incidents and moments which spark controversy.

The flashpoint between Matt Nickerson and Jeff Smith that led to a three-game ban (Pic: Steve Gunn, ShotByAGunn )

The flashpoint between Matt Nickerson and Jeff Smith that led to a three-game ban (Pic: Steve Gunn, ShotByAGunn )

One fan’s fair hit is another’s perfect example of goon hockey which requires a lengthy ban.

Amid the noise, the froth and the online debates, it’s the job of DOPS - the Department of Player Safety - to assess, analyse and then act.

The EIHL’s new system is based on the NHL approach and, for all it has drawn some controversy, it is one that, I think, has got more right than wrong.

Disciplinary decisions are hugely subjective and often contentious, and DOPS deserves credit for its clear explanations, its use of video, and, above all, its quick turnaround time.

It is as transparent as the sport has ever been when it comes to punishing the reckless and the dangerous - the game’s stick merchants and cheap shotters who are masters of ice hockey’s dark arts.

That doesn’t mean it is immune from criticism - indeed the more decisions it makes, the more fans are able to draw direct comparisons and raise concerns over a lack of consistency.

There is still work to be done by DOPs in this respect.

The three-game ban on Matt Nickerson was an interesting one, and it sparked a fair bit of debate.

Throwing a punch while on the bench left him with zero defence, but the more you watch the video, the more you start to ask questions - questions, you hope, DOPs, also pondered before reaching its decision.

For every action there is a reaction.

Jeff Smith and Nickerson are well known to each other, and not in a ‘‘let’s exchange Christmas cards kinda way’’ either, so when the Braehead defenceman had a high stick into Jamie Wilson right in front of the Fife team bench, a potential flashpoint was created. It’s hockey. These things happen.

Now, benches are pretty big things - they need to be to accommodate some 18 skaters, coach, sticks and back-room staff - but he still managed to locate, with satNav precision, where Nickerson, his old nemesis, was standing.

It quickly went from shoves to a single haymaker of a punch from Nickerson which saw Smith crumple like a discarded tissue.

But go back to the action/reaction element.

Smith clearly shoves his way to, if not, into, the bench. His arm is raised and he’s as in your face as you can get with the boards standing resolute between two opponents. He engages solely with Nickerson - whether by choice or misfortune is open to debate.

The DOPs commentary clearly refers to ‘‘punches being thrown by players from both teams’’ - Smith is the only Braehead player involved so that must mean him, and that raises a a key question from this incident: If it’s unacceptable to punch from the bench - and it absolutely is, let’s be in no doubt - then where does DOPs stand on throwing a punch from the ice ON to the bench, regardless of whether you impact like Ali or hit fresh air? Both are surely equally wrong? And DOPs itself refers to punches from players, plural...

No injury was sustained, Smith played out the game - albeit with stars flickering in front of his eyes - and Nickerson’s absence helped Clan to a big win. It really ought to have ended there - referee Allan Craig’s calls were pretty much spot on - rather than a three-game ban.

DOPs appear to have punished a player for one almighty punch, and overlooked, or discarded, the action that sparked the reaction that led to the right hook.

Right or wrong?

The debate will continue until Nickerson returns to the ice and probably on to the next Flyers-Clan game - by which time another incident elsewhere will have called DOPs team back to the table.

It’s year one for the new set-up. The model is good but it needs to be developed - and improved.

We’ve come a long way from the days of decisions being taken in smoke-filled rooms, where deals were done and favours pulled in and fans were left none the wiser, but it’s still a learning curve.

The NHL version has a website filled with instructive educational videos which are aimed at fans and players alike, and it has a fantastic explanation of how DOPS works. We need that to be mirrored in the EIHL for 2015-16.

DOPs’ aim is to do what its NHL counterpart does - to make the game as safe as possible for players but,and this is the crucial bit, ‘‘while preserving the physical, competitive passionate nature of hockey.’’

Will it get it right every time? Probably not. Even if it did, its judgements would still be the subject of debate ...