Should the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) be responsible for player safety on the ice?

Guy H.J. Bourbonnière,
Director of Canadian Healthcare & Educational Markets, and Comprehensive & Energy Solutions,
Ingersoll Rand

During this spring’s Hockey playoffs, Phoenix Coyotes winger Raffi Torres applied a vicious hit to the head of star player Marian Hossa of the Chicago Hawks. The National Hockey League imposed a 25 game suspension, which was quickly appealed by the Players association. The case reveals some interesting dilemmas.

An odd assumption

The NHLPA is made up of athlete members and executive leaders with the mandate to represent the players of the National Hockey League (NHL) and to guarantee that their rights as players are upheld under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. One of the odd assumptions is the players expect the NHL to protect their association members from one other’s misdemeanors.

The new collective bargaining agreement

The NHLPA is in the news [October 2012] as players come together to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHL. There is no mention of the recent on-ice assaults.

The dilemma that the NHLPA player leaders have, is that while they attempt to work together to improve the financial position and working conditions of players, they also compete against each other every time they play a hockey game.

The game is quick, violent and dangerous. Often players break the rules to inflict forms of intimidation against each other (i.e. fellow association members) to win a game.

In fact, the NHL has to put new measures in place regularly to deter fellow association members from hurting each other in both premeditated and spontaneous violent actions. It is a real irony that the NHL has to impose regulations to protect fellow association members from each other.

Sometimes simple, sometimes serious

These regulations may be as simple as penalizing a team and player for a short period of time by reducing the number of players they can have on the ice surface during play. In more serious cases, the player can be suspended for a number of games, and forfeit his pay for those games that he is suspended.

On a regular basis, the NHLPA appeals these suspensions to protect the rights of the offending player. I wonder how the victim of the assault feels when his own player’s association is defending his assaulter. It makes more sense that suspensions be doled out by the NHLPA instead of the NHL.
The most recent example was during this spring’s playoff where repeat offender Raffi Torres applied a vicious hit to the head of star player Marian Hossa. The National Hockey League imposed a 25 game suspension which was quickly appealed by the NHLPA.

‘Who owns the problem?’

The NHLPA should re-write the charter on what constitutes a member in good standing, to include respect for their fellow members. Using their fists or sticks as weapons against each other should not be tolerated by the NHLPA. The NHLPA should not expect the NHL to have to protect players from each other.

Lindsay’s legacy

The NHLPA was formed by a heroic leader (and player) named Ted Lindsay (Duff, 2008). He formed the original NHLPA at a time when it was easy for owners to ostracize players who confronted the owners. It is now the time for a new heroic leader to come forward and move beyond the paradigm of a players’ association as a unified front vs. team owners. The players are extremely well-paid and are working under good labour conditions. The people who are hurting them and shortening their careers through assaults on the ice, are fellow members. An enhanced mandate of the NHLPA should include the enforcement of appropriate on-ice behavior and remove players who choose not to comply.

To go more deeply

Duff, B. (2008) Seven: A Salute to Ted Lindsay.1st ed. Olympia Entertainment
Kelly, M. (2012) Raffi Torres suspended 25 games by NHL for Hossa hit: Apr 21, 2012. Available at:
http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/story/2012/04/21/sp-raffi-torres-suspension.html (Accessed: 15 August 2012)
Ross, A. (2010) ‘Trust and Antitrust: The Failure of the First National Hockey League Players’ Association, 1957-1958’, University of Guelph
Available at: http://uoguelph.academia.edu/JAndrewRoss/Papers/480136/Trust_and_Antitrust_The_Failure_of_the_First_National_Hockey_League_Players_Association_1957_-1958
(Accessed: 26 July 2012)
The Canadian Press. (2012) NHL reduces Raffi Torres suspension by four games, Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/nhl-reduces-raffi-torres-suspension-by-four-games/article4384878/ (Accessed: 15 August 2012)
CONSTITUTION OF THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE PLAYERS’ ASSOCIATION [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhlpa.com/docs/about-us/nhlpa_constitution.pdf
2011-12 Official NHL Rulebook [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhl.com/nhl/en/v3/ext/pdfs/2011-12_RULE_BOOK.pdf

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7 Responses to Should the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) be responsible for player safety on the ice?

  1. A.Bourbonniere says:

    Absolutely right on — the NHLPA must be the group that ensures on-ice safety for the players and fines or suspends player-members who choose to hurt and maim fellow player-members on opposing teams!!

  2. L. Perry says:

    Intelligent and thoughtful essay. If Mr. Bourbonniere’s recommendations were adopted, it would make for interesting changes to how “consequences” are dolled out.

  3. Lazar says:

    Player’s that are better with their fists than thier stick handling are recruited by owners to attract fans that have a taste for blood sports. Will the NHLPA want to decide to “dock” their member’s pay for “using their fists” when the player has been hired to do just that? The fans pay to see fights, the players are paid to fight – Does the NHPLA protect a player’s salary or their safety – Catch 22

  4. Mila says:

    Well written. Ironically, I stopped watching hockey because of the same issue – violence on ice, when it stopped to be a gentlemen game of excellence and precision and turned into a mob (more or less) on skates with sticks. But that’s what the crowds want “bread and blood”, since gladiators of ancient Rome and not much has changed in basic human makeup.

  5. Thanks to all. Also to Guy for original post. Your informed and polite comments are much appreciated. I was wrong to assume the post would result in readers dropping their smartphones then starting combat…

  6. philcook2012 says:

    Great perspective Guy and a well written post. It is certainly a paradoxical relationship that exists between the fans the players and the owners to be certain. The issue you raise is a tenuous one certainly. Is it possible to eliminate physical contact entirely from the game? Should the police be involved at some point – as they have in the past? Is the employer responsible for the Health and Safety of the employee on the work site? Generally I believe that in construction Health and Safety are covered jointly with committees of employees and employers. I know owner liability in construction is huge having been an employer myself. Perhaps the referees association should have the final word in handing out the penalties for violence of any degree and be paid jointly by the members and the players with bonuses paid back to those who are penalized fewer minutes and large money penalties paid by those who are the biggest offenders. And what occurs to those bonus thresholds that are in contracts for achieving x number of penalty minutes?
    Excellent blog post Guy and some very complex management relations to think about.

    Drop the puck!!!

  7. jeff weir says:

    nice job Mr Bourbonniere. I wonder if the NHLPA has ever stated their reason for being in the position they are: joining the ranks to “fight” the owners, and then breaking the ranks when the owners/league get tough on those who are hurting salaried players.

    Having the league make the fines and penalties for abusive play equates to the owners (whom the league represents) standing up and saying “hey, that guy is paid by me and you cant get violent on him”. Logically then, the players are viewed as property, and that probably rubs against the concept of being a professional athlete, rather than a revenue-machine.

    I believe the NHLPA would better serve their players, and show respect to them as professionals, by acting as the disciplinary body amongst their membership. That would be a true act of service to their members, and elevate players from chattel to professional status.

    And like may other bloggers, i think there is too much violence in hockey and fighting should be banned, period. It is a disgrace. go back to felt and leather protection for players and lets see how the game changes!

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