Opinion: OHL suspensions provide lessons for the pros

Brendan Shanahan has ostensibly foiled the villainous plots previously perpetrated by NHL bad boys across the league, whose offences are now dissected and judged in meticulously prepared public broadcasts.

The Senior Vice President of Player Safety is calling out the culprits in a never-before-seen manner, and laying down the law with an iron fist

Or is he?

Compared to a recent rash of sanctions handed out by the Ontario Hockey League, Shanahan’s rulings appear to be nothing more than love taps on the wrist.

But Vice President Ted Baker of the OHL isn’t looking to weigh his organization’s decisions against those doled out by the NHL..

“In our minds, we can’t base it [suspensions] on what the NHL does,” Baker told the Toronto Observer by phone Friday. “They’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars of money. It’s apples and oranges.”

Since Oct. 4, Ontario’s major junior hockey league has assessed three significant rulings, totaling 35 regular-season games missed for three players.

Josh Shalla of the Saginaw Spirit, and Kyle Hope of the Oshawa Generals were each handed 10-game moratoriums for incidents involving body contact with an opponent’s head.

Kyle Flemington, a repeat offender of the London Knights, was dispensed a 15-game leave for a head shot incident on Oct. 4 that resulted in an injury.

When it comes to determining the time frame for punishment, Baker consults with commissioner David Branch, who has the ultimate say on league discipline.

“The length of a suspension is somewhat subjective,” said Baker, of the offences that warrant supplementary action. “We take into consideration a number of factors when handing out discipline, and those factors will influence the length of the suspension.”

Vulnerability of the opposing player’s position, leaving your feet for contact, striking the head and possession of the puck are examples of the circumstances up for debate when it comes to finalizing a ruling.

While the OHL is coming down hard on transgressors who violate the league’s five-year-old headshot rule (44B in the book), its professional counterpart remains hesitant to significantly increase the length of its suspensions.

Shanahan has suspended eight players already in the early going of the 2011-12 NHL season, but only one will result in a player missing more than five regular-season contests.

Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman James Wisniewski received 12 total games for an egregious illegal check to the head of Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck.

The last player to be suspended for 10 games by the NHL was Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke, for a hit to the head on New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh last March. Additionally, Cooke was ineligible for the first round of the post-season.

Although it appears praise worthy upon first glance, the act was Cooke’s fifth head shot incident that has resulted in suspension.  It would be a considerable understatement to say the league has been lenient with the Pens mischief-maker.

In fairness, the NHL is actually a step behind the OHL in terms of dealing with head contact, being in only its second season with an official rule (48) that bands blindside hits to the head.

Already a half-decade into its campaign to increase player safety, the OHL’s board of governors requested the league increase sanctions on headshots and repeat offenders at the league’s annual meeting in August.

The OHL is playing copycat in one regard, mimicking the NHL’s online videos to announce and explain its rulings.

“We do it for checking from behind, checks to the head, and others that we feel warrant it at our discretion,” Baker said. “Discipline means learning, and we have to ensure our players understand what is acceptable and what is not.

“It is more of an education piece that our teams are showing their players.”

Whether or not the OHL has the simpler task in suspending unpaid players, versus the millionaires of the pros, is up for debate.

What is clear, is that disciplining athletes is ubiquitously challenging.

“I don’t see it being easier one way or the other,” said Baker, referring to the comparison between the two leagues. “Discipline is one of the most difficult aspects of our job.”

Assessing the progress, Baker believes the OHL has created a safer environment for its players by enforcing a no-tolerance stance on headshots.

“Hopefully through our diligence on checks to the head, our players will continue to be educated on this [issue].”

Junior players are usually looking up at the professionals with eyes of envy, but in the arena of safety and regulation, the NHL might learn a thing or two by taking a peek at the milieu of the OHL.