Comment: DOPS’ farce is EIHL’s defining moment

Colton Fretter clashes with Spiro Goulakos (Pic: Dean Woolley)
Colton Fretter clashes with Spiro Goulakos (Pic: Dean Woolley)

One game. One astonishing, inept decision. One unprecedented reaction.

One growing crisis for the EIHL.

Ice hockey and disciplinary bodies have long had an awkward, often messy, sometimes murky relationship.

Anyone who has spent any time in the sport will tell you tales of dodgy deals and shoddy agreements behind the scenes to make the latest on-ice outrage go away.

DOPS was meant to change all that.

The Department of Player Safety was a new approach; an arms-length organisation that assessed the evidence and delivered the appropriate measures, backed up with clear explanations using video footage.

Today, DOPS is dead.

Its’ decision to hand a one-game ban to a player who careered across the ice at full speed to level an opponent, head-high, in a spot of instant retribution was beyond belief.

The EIHL’s decision to call it in was, effectively, a vote of no confidence in DOPS from which there can be no return.

That Colton Fretter of Sheffield Steelers was the victim of a horrible hit by Belfast Giants’ Spiro Goulakos is not in doubt.

But retribution can never be justified.

If it is, then ice hockey slips from being a physical sport to the violent, goon show as showcased by films like Slapshot.

DOPS’ one-game ban sent a signal that lawlessness and instant justice, wild west style, were now okay in an EIHL where more than a few tough enforcers patrol the ice pads.

Taken out of the game? Get up, level your opponent and carry on regardless. Missing 60 minutes the next night is no big deal in return for instant payback.

For an organisation tasked with focussing on player safety, that is utterly astonishing.

And it is a gross dis-service to the guys who lace up and play with remarkable skill, speed and athleticism and professionalism while laying their bodies on the line every single shift.

It is a stain which taints every single good person who works tirelessly for the benefit of this sport. Little wonder hockey fans wept with despair this week.

It is a reputational trainwreck for the EIHL at a time when the league is more competitive than ever, when the ‘full house’ signs have been in use at games across the UK, and when Nottingham and Cardiff are performing miracles on the European stage.

Instead of positive headlines to catch the eye of new fans and potential sponsors, the hockey world is looking on in disbelief, and wondering which withering term to apply - Bush League or Beer League?

I’ve never seen such a furious reaction to a single disciplinary issue.

Fretter’s ban was incomprehensible – and three games for Goulakos for kicking? Surely anyone facing such a charge has to be put out of the game for a significantly greater length of time.

DOPS’ decision trended on Twitter in the UK, and for all the wrong reasons.

The league instigated a review into DOPS’ own review. Unprecedented.

An online petition calling for DOPS restructuring has gathered over 2000 signatures in next to no time

The ‘Fretter Failure’ was DOPS’ nadir.

It also stands as the EIHL’s defining moment.

The league’s decision to review DOPS means everything must change.

The retention of the ethos of player safety is integral to the game, but the personnel must be removed, and the procedure thoroughly overhauled.

The solution is in the hands of the clubs. They run their own league, they decide what goes - a faultline that holds it back in so many ways - and they now have to demonstrate an ability to work together for the greater good than ever before.

In a sport where self-interest seems to over-ride everything, that is going to be a real test of the executive’s leadership.

The issue has moved on beyond just Fretter and Goulakos – I’d argue both players should remain suspended until the review is complete – but their clash will cast a long shadow over the rest of this season.