Saturday, March 15, 2008

Stomp the rink

The NHL announced today that Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger would be suspended for eight games for his stomp on Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. Outstanding CKNW and Canucks TV colour man Tom Larscheid nailed it towards the end of the clip, calling it "A deliberate play by Pronger just to stomp on Kesler with his skate." In my mind at least, this was out-and-out dirty, right up there with the infamous Chris Simon on Jarkko Ruutu play. Of course, Simon's a fringe player, so the full book (a 30-game suspension) got thrown at him: Pronger wouldn't even have been suspended without the NHL suspiciously finding a "new angle" after they'd already ruled it was inconclusive. According to Pronger, the league told him Thursday night there would be no suspension, but then re-reviewed the tape on Friday and came up with the new punishment. I don't see how they deemed it inconclusive in the first place: even the original camera angle was far better than most of the footage of the Simon-Ruutu incident. Simon also hit Ruutu's skate, while Pronger went straight for Kesler's leg. Methinks perhaps Simon's widely reported comments and the increasing media and fan pressure targeting the obvious inequity here got league disciplinarian Colin Campbell to reconsider: there are those who agree, like the Battle of California's Earl Sleek.

It would be nice to have things treated fairly, at least," Simon told the Associated Press after the Wild practised on Friday. "I don't think in that instance it's fair at all. I couldn't believe right away that nothing was going to be done about it. I still can't believe it."

Simon should start believing it. Even with a suspension handed out, the NHL's two-tiered system of justice is still blatantly obvious. There's one code for superstars like Pronger and a different one for everyone else: consider Pronger's pair of one-game suspensions last playoffs for offenses that likely would have meant multiple games for anyone else. Campbell cited history as a factor in determining the length of the Simon decision, but Pronger's history is almost as bad: Simon has 8 suspensions in 15 years, while Pronger's racked up 7 in 14 (including three in the last calendar year). The relative lengths further demonstrate the special treatment Pronger gets. The longest suspension he'd ever received previously was four games, and his total suspensions including this one only total 20 regular season games and two post-season games. By contrast, Simon's two longest suspensions amounted to 25 and 30 games each, respectively.

The offenses aren't that dissimilar, either. ESPN has a great breakdown of the incidents involving Pronger, which include hitting Pat Peake in the throat with a stick, swinging a stick at Jeremy Roenick's helmet, cross-checking Brendan Morrow in the face and kicking Ville Nieminen. By contrast, Simon's suspensions are generally less physically harmful: his longest suspension prior to the March 2007 stick-swinging incident (similar to both of Pronger's stick incidents, but worth a 25-game suspension instead of a four-game ban) was three games for alleged racial remarks. Add the incidents up, and it's Pronger who looks like the bigger goon, but Simon with the harsher punishment.

The league's also giving Pronger the benefit of the doubt, as the Vancouver Province's Jason Botchford reports. "In attempting to free himself, Pronger carelessly and recklessly brought his foot down," Campbell said in a statement. As Botchford writes, "The other possibility is that Pronger wasn't careless at all, that he intended to injure in an act of frustration."
Campbell's release makes Pronger's actions sound like an accident, unlike his comments in Simon's case. "But he just snaps," he told the Canadian Press back then. "And we can't have that. Because now we're talking about the safety of other players on the ice. ... You would hope he wouldn't do it again but maybe he can't help himself. I don't know. He's never actually come out and said, 'I will never do this again.'"

Oh really, Mr. Campbell? Where's your concern for other players in the Pronger incident? This guy's done a lot to hurt players over the years: look at the concussion he gave Dean McCammond last playoffs. Playing with skates is a dangerous business: see Zednik, Richard, Perry, Corey, and Bieksa, Kevin, to name just a few. However, he's a star who sells jerseys and draws fans, so he gets the kid-gloves treatment while Campbell muses about ending Simon's career. That's not right, and it's not fair.

I have every bit of respect for Pronger's abilities as a player, but there can't be one standard for stars and one for role players. The Globe's Allan Maki summed that up nicely on the Globe on Hockey blog. "Simon deserved his suspension, no one’s quibbling about that," he wrote. "But letting Pronger go unpunished only raises more incriminating questions, such as: Is the NHL afraid of affecting Anaheim’s playoff push by suspending Pronger? Is the NHL afraid of invoking the wrath of Ducks’ general manager Brian Burke? Is the NHL hiding behind the old bit about not knowing what a player’s true intent is in such heat-of-the-moment moments? Based on what we’ve seen thus far, we certainly know what the NHL’s intent is: suspend the easy targets but let’s not be so hasty when it comes to our superstars."

Another intersting take is from New York Islanders' media relations VP, Chris Botta. Botta hits most of the points I've already elaborated on, but adds this about the initial Simon on Ruutu incident. "I'm going to step out just a bit here and share something that Chris said to me a few times," he wrote. "In all honesty, when he volunteered his thoughts I was torn between being sympathetic and concerned that Chris had lost his way. Basically, Chris felt that on judgment day he was treated differently than other players. I never let the conversation get to the subject of why." What's interesting here is what Botta doesn't say. Clearly, a PR guy wouldn't bring up anything this controversial (I'm impressed that he was so vocal about this in the first place), but one gets the impression Simon might have felt that race could have played a role (Simon is half Ojibwa): there have been suggestions that racism played a role in Islanders' coach Ted Nolan getting blacklisted from the NHL for years after winning the Jack Adams Trophy, and he certainly had to struggle with racist taunts while coaching junior hockey. I really hope that this isn't the case, that our society has moved beyond that, and that Colin Campbell treated Chris Simon the same way he would have treated a white role player (we already know it's not how he would have treated a superstar), but the shadow of possible racism still lingers.

In the league's defence, it wouldn't have been easy to suspend Pronger for 30 games, particularly with the playoffs looming: that would have taken the Ducks from favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup champions back down to the realms of the merely mortal contenders. They did it with Todd Bertuzzi, though, which certainly hurt the Canucks that year. That incident was different, and obviously more serious in terms of its consequences, but the precedent was set that the league didn't mind severely reducing a team's playoff chances via suspension if the situation warranted it. The Canucks of that year took the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames to seven games and overtime in the first round that year: who knows what they could have accomplished with Big Bert? Pronger should have gotten the same treatment as Simon, regardless of where the season was at.

- James Mirtle's take: interestingly, 77% of respondents to his poll (122 people) agree with me that the suspension was too short.
- Tom Benjamin's take
- Alanah's take

Update: As usual, the Globe's Eric Duhatschek nails this one: "Simon's act may have been slightly more egregious than Pronger's, but it's hard to understand why the sentence was almost four times as long – unless you're prepared to consider that Pronger is a former Hart Memorial Trophy winner and an important cog on the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks, whereas Simon is a fringe player and thus a far-easier target for NHL justice. ... Under the current NHL rule of law, it isn't justice for all. It is justice for some."


  1. you can't help but think that perhaps bigotry has something to do with it. Sad state of affairs for the NHL. And yes, Mr. Botta is always brave and vocal on topics he feels strongly about. Refreshing, isn't it?

  2. Yeah, nice to see a PR guy willing to go out on a limb and question his league. I'm not entirely convinced it was racism, as there's a huge superstar vs. role player bias in the league as well, but that shadow's definitely looming over the case (especially given the past treatment of Simon and Nolan). Campbell's comments in the two cases would support that: Simon "just snaps" and needs treatment/counselling, while Pronger "carelessly and recklessly brought his foot down", implying that it was a mistake. Like I wrote, I'm really hoping race played no role, but it's tough to get that suspicion out of the mind.