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

November 20, 2012

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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