HOCKEY BLOG: Player safety, EIHL and the muddled message ..

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For a new organisation, the Department of Player Safety has made one heck on an entrance.

Announced a month or so back by the EIHL, its first decision was to upgrade a two-minute minor penalty into a ten-game ban and fine the cliub £1000, and then, one week later, a very similar check resulted in an automatic one-game ban.

Cue online debate, some righteous indignation and the usual conspiracy theories. The more things change ...

Let’s rewind.

The rather grandly named Department of Player Safety - which rather suggests it has a plush suite of offices on the fifth floor, and a CEO with deep-pile carpet and view across the city, rather than a table and maybe a filing cabinet within the EIHL HQ - is running this season on a trial basis.

Its aims are laudable; to monitor games and flag incidents which warrant review and may result in potential disciplinary action.

The target? A consistent standard when it comes to enforcing the rules - something ice hockey has failed miserably to deliver for far too long.

It promised clarity and transparency, with use of video to clearly explain how decisions were reached.

So far so good.

I did wonder why the statement on the EIHL website announcing the arrival of the DoPS gave no mention of who was involved, how many were involved and who was at the helm. Why not?

The new body has already sparked debate, and the season has barely started.

A hit delivered in the first minute of their first game saw Edinburgh Capitals’ Riley Emmerson get a minor boarding penalty for nailing Belfast’s Kevin Phillips into the plexi.

Watching the game I thought it could have been a 5+G - indeed, it might well have been but for the fact it was in the first 60 seconds of the first shift of the first period of the first night of a new season. Phillips took no further part in the game as a direct result of the impact of being hammered into the plexi.

The DoPS upgraded the penalty, and then delivered a whopping ten-game suspension plus a £1000 fine for the club failing to provide video footage of the incident.

On Saturday night, Sheffield Steelers’ defenceman Mark Thomas nailed Fife Flyers’ Danny Stewart with very similar check.

Both were late, both were hard and both sent players flying unexpectedly into the plexi where the risk of concussion and serious injury is much higher.

Both were, in short, pretty dumb, un-necessary hits.

Thomas was assessed a one-game ban.

Consistency?

As ever with ice hockey, nothing is straight forward.

Emmerson’s penalty was upgraded to a match, Thomas’ was altered to a 5+G. Any supplementary discipline would have come in with a game ban, maybe two or three at a hefty push.

There was a nine-game discrepancy between two incidents which were very, very similar, putting the DoPS immediately under fire, with claims of one rule for the big teams and another for the wee teams - a long-standing grievance nursed by hockey fans over the years.

The explanation issued after the Emmerson ruling was detailed, but also open to interpretation.

It seemed to suggest it came about because the video footage wasn’t available - in other words the player was effectively punished for the shortcomings of his club’s off-ice match night organisation rather than the legality, or otherwise, of his check. It also took into account Phllips’ possible concussion, although the fact he played this weekend just left folk even more non-plussed.

In laying out its reasons, the DoPS tried to be clear, but its message was still muddled.

For it to have credibility, it must speak with no ambiguity. That’s where direct quotes from the official in charge would be very welcome.

If,as many in hockey believe, the real message behind Emmerson’s ban was a warning shot to all clubs to make sure match night footage is done properly every game then that is a separate issue.

To escalate the player’s punishment to ten games despite being unable to actually see the incident in question suggests the DoPS simply decided, or decided to assume, it was at the top end of the scale and acted accordingly.

Regardless of whether you are a fan of Emmerson and his style of play - and let’s be honest he ain’t here on account of his silky skating and fancy stickhandling skills, he’s here to enforce and drop ‘em when necessary - that cannot be right.

If his check was worth ten, what tariff do you place on two heavyweights kicking off in a major brawl? How hard do you hammer someone for a brutal cheapshot or deliberate attempt to injure?

Hockey is a physical sport, flashpoints can, and do, occur - and the arrival of a slew of tough guys like Emmerson with reps for dropping ‘em into a conference packed with bristling rivalries suggests the red mist will descend.

We cannot watch a repeat of the misguided 12-game ban Moray Hanson slapped on Matt Nickerson last season. That sort of number should only be for the most serious or violent incidents.

Ask any player or coach and they will tell you all they want is consistency - both on and off the ice.

The impression, however unintentional, the DoPS has given in its first deliberations really hasn’t met that test.

Shall we start again?