Hockey season started a week ago today, and already the NHL has dished out five suspensions for illegal play. And it’s still only the pre-season.
Following a season in which the sport’s highest profile player was sidelined in January after a hit to the head that resulted in a concussion, hockey has spent a lot of time examining itself.
Sidney Crosby got hit in the head during the Winter Classic on January 1; he was injured again four days later and hasn’t played since. Over the summer, three players known for fighting – Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien – all died. Both Belak and Rypien reportedly suffered from depression; Boogaard died from an accidental mix of prescription painkillers and alcohol.
As a result, hockey is looking at and re-formulating its policies on hits to the head in the same way that racing scrutinized itself after the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles.
Over the summer, former player Brendan Shanahan was appointed Senior Vice President of Player Safety; among his responsibilities are determining whether a play is illegal; whether players should be suspended and/or fined; and the length and amount of the suspension and fine.
He’s hockey’s steward. And in this first week of the season, he’s certainly made a mark, not only in the number and duration of the suspensions he’s handed out, but in the way he’s communicated the results to the public.
Beginning with the first suspension, of Calgary’s Pierre-Luc LeTourneau-Leblond for boarding, Shanahan took to the internet, filming a video that explained the play, the rule, and his ruling. Shanahan showed the game clip of the play and explained how he came to his decision; he acknowledged that he’d taken into account LeTourneau-Leblond’s past infractions in arriving at a suspension of the remainder of the pre-season (four games) and the first game of the regular season.
When Philadelphia’s Jody Shelley was suspended for boarding later in the week, Shanahan did the same thing.
And Sunday’s NHL announcement about Buffalo’s Brad Boyes’s suspension for an illegal hit to the head Saturday night included a statement that Shanahan’s video would be available later that night…and it was.
You really should take a look at least one of these videos; Shanahan talks about why he does or doesn’t take into a player’s history; how this incident will be considered in future infractions; his opinion of the player’s intent to injure, or not.
The responses I’ve read, from mainstream media, bloggers, and fans, have been unanimously favorable.
Compare this with the “Stewards’ Corner” introduced by NYRA in the summer of 2010.
In the booth for every race at a NYRA track are three stewards: one representing NYRA, one representing the State Racing and Wagering Board, and one representing the Jockey Club.
Since last summer, the stewards have offered an explanation of their decision for every objection or inquiry. For the most part, these explanations been dismissed as pretty much useless.
Consider this ruling from September 11:
RACE 6: Steward’s Inquiry into the stretch run. At the top of the stretch, # 6 Buffum (D. Cohen) shifts out sharply under a left handed crop carrying the second place finisher, # 4 Bold Warrior (A. Garcia), out with him. After reviewing the videos of the incident, the stewards determined the interference altered the finish of the race. # 6 Buffum was disqualified from first to second place.
This explanation is followed by the rule in question:
4035.2. Foul riding penalized.
(a) When clear, a horse may be taken to any part of the course provided that crossing or weaving in front of contenders may constitute interference or intimidation for which the offender may be disciplined.
(b) A horse crossing another may be disqualified, if in the judgment of the stewards, it interferes with, impedes or intimidates another horse, or the foul altered the finish of the race, regardless of whether the foul was accidental, willful, or the result of careless riding. The stewards may also take into consideration mitigating factors, such as whether the impeded horse was partly at fault or the crossing was wholly caused by the fault of some other horse or jockey.
(c) If a horse or jockey jostles another horse, the aggressor may be disqualified, unless the impeding horse or his jockey was partly in fault or the jostle was wholly caused by the fault of some other horse or jockey.
So as observers of the infraction, we know: what the incident was; what the stewards decided; and what the rule was.
What we don’t get, and what the NHL gives us, is video of the incident as well an explanation of the decision. The stewards have told us what they decided, which was clear to everyone minutes after the race when the order of finish was reversed. What we still don’t know is why the stewards think the interference altered the finish of the race.
We also don’t know what, if any, action was taken against jockey David Cohen for his ride on Buffum.
Stewards’ Corner offers another resource: the weekly stewards’ recap.
Here, we get information on incidents that didn’t involve an inquiry or an object: fines for improper shoes, gate scratches, horses that were vanned off.
What is not, perplexingly, included here in the weekly recap for September 10 – 18 is anything at all about the disqualification on the 11th. Though the heading suggests we might learn here about jockey fines or warnings, nothing about Cohen appears, suggesting that…no one talked to him? That no warning was given and/or warranted?
The list of items at the top of the page doesn’t include anything about inquiries or objections, so it’s perhaps understandable that the Buffum/Bold Warrior incident isn’t listed.
But…why? Why would such things be omitted from a weekly stewards’ report?
The NHL’s public information is clear, transparent, engaging, and easy to understand. You might disagree with the league’s ruling on a particular incident, but at least you know why it was made.
The NYRA stewards’ reports offer little in the way of insight and seem little more than pro forma attempt at transparency.
As in so many other areas, a lot separates hockey from racing. Hockey has one central authority and one league. Hockey players’ behavior is ruled on by one body. Hockey players are employed by one team; they’re paid a salary.
In the stewards’ booth at Belmont, three bodies are represented: the track, the state, and the Jockey Club. Jockeys are independent contractors, picking and choosing where and for whom they ride. They’re paid on commission.
The NHL doesn’t really have to worry about litigation as a result of its ruling, whereas I’ve been told by more than one person that fear of getting sued is one reason that stewards’ rulings aren’t more explicit: they don’t want to offer any information that might provide fodder for a lawsuit. And that seems like a reasonable concern to me. But seeing what the NHL is doing makes me yearn for something similar in racing.
And let’s be clear: Shanahan himself is one reason these things work. He was a successful player (three Stanley Cups, three gold medals in international competition); he’s smart and savvy, and he cares about hockey (during the lockout, he arranged a two-day meeting with players, coaches, managers and referees to talk about how to improve the game); and he was tough (nearly 2,500 penalty minutes). He’s earned the respect of players, executives, and the public.
And he comes across great on camera. If he weren’t working for the league, he’d be a hockey rock star on television.
Oh, yeah, and he’s got a racehorse named after him.
So hockey has a lot of advantages over racing when it comes to making public its rulings, though the NYRA site beats the NHL one easily for making the rulings easy to find; Stewards’ Corner is listed prominently in the left side navigation column; I’ve searched in vain on the NHL site for where these videos are archived.
But maybe, just maybe, racing can look at what hockey’s doing and try to adopt some of it. Stewards’ Corner is a great concept, a step in the right direction, with the potential to be even better.
With a little help from Steward Shanahan?