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Buzzkill Central: Watching Playoff Hockey at the Department of Player Safety

The NHL Department of Player Safety might be the least interesting place to watch a hockey game. But it also might shape the future of the sport.
April 28, 2015, 12:25pm
Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL's Department of Player Safety headquarters is one of the least exciting places to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs. Buzzkill Central is a room about the width of two luxury suites on the 12th floor of league headquarters in midtown Manhattan. There are big screens divided into quadrants, each showing different games. The air is redolent of cologne and rootless interest.

The very name of this office—Department of Player Safety—is a misnomer: It's not about testing new-technology helmets that could lessen the impact on the brain from a skull-rattling blow. It's more like an eye-in-the-sky at a casino, watching silently and vigilantly from a distance.

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The department has 10 employees, five of whom have the nondescript title of "coordinator." The coordinators are guys who played college hockey locally. A few are married. Chris Nastro, a single dad, was a referee in the junior Atlantic Youth Hockey League. But they're all in the NHL now—not playing, but watching game feeds, and taking second and third looks at physical plays. Some are paid hourly. The perk, of course, is that the job involves watching NHL games, though counter-intuitively, without regard to the most compelling storyline: the score. It's a bit like binge-watching "Mad Men" without following the dialogue or main plot.

What the coordinators are doing, instead of caring about who wins, is collecting data, annotating hits and fights, so that one day, the data set can help players become more cognizant of the dangers they can pose to each other on the ice.

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But that's a vague mission, and it has little to do with what's actually happening on the ice. After all, playoffs are playoffs. The league itself sells the second season as an epic war. No head coach is telling his players, "Be careful out there and don't hurt anybody. Remember, the Department of Player Safety is watching."

So the coordinators take a distant tact, like sociologists conducting field research. "Comeau helicoptered a bit but seems OK," Nastro noted during a random collision between the Penguins' Blake Comeau and the Rangers' Rick Nash during Game 3 of their first-round series.

Dustin Byfuglien (standing) with Corey Perry (writhing). Photo by Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports.

Un-penalized, quickly forgotten micro-moments like these are jotted down in a sentence or two and end up as color-coded game notes in binders. Anything related to player safety is green. Yellow is for missed calls, purple for embellishments, and red for significant moments. Such information might be helpful down the road, whether to show troublesome patterns in a player's or to contextualize how what happened in the first period between two players produced a much worse incident in the third or several games later. Peter Livera, another coordinator, called it "the story on top of a story."

When a player edges to or crosses the line with a hit, an email goes out to the department's higher-ups—led by senior VP and NHL veteran Stephane Quintal—complete with a video link to the incident. Last Monday, on a night in which three first-round playoff games were played, only one incident rose to an email; when Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien collared Corey Perry in the back of the neck just after Perry scored to put the Ducks up 2-1.

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It was something between a punch and a frustrated "paw," and Perry crumpled to the ice. Then he got right back up. There was no question that Byfuglien, whom Player Safety suspended for four games in April after he cross-checked the Rangers' T.J. Miller in the back of the neck, had delivered a cheap shot away from the play. But Perry wasn't injured and the referee gave Byfuglien two minutes for roughing. Justice, NHL-style.

"Wouldn't surprise me if Byfuglien doesn't get any further discipline but to me that's a dangerous play on Perry," ESPN's Pierre LeBrun tweeted moments later. Department Director Patrick Burke read the tweet to the room, noting LeBrun's cheeky double negative—wouldn't surprise me if Byfuglien doesn't. Part of Burke's job responsibilities seems to involve drolly letting the room know who is currently hating on the department. At 31, and with a law degree, Burke is a legacy—his father Brian, now president of hockey operations for the Flames, was the league's head disciplinarian in the '90s.

"The stressful part is that there's no winning and losing," said Burke. "You're watching hockey every night but you're not cheering for a team…. A good day for us is just that nothing bad happened in the league." He added: "By the end of the year, you're not watching hockey because you love hockey anymore, you're watching hockey and it's like, 'Uch, just don't hit each other. Just stay away.'"

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The NHL established this room at the end of a concussion-themed 2010-2011 season in which Montreal's Max Pacioretty was rammed into a stanchion along the boards by Boston's Zdeno Chara and the league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby, missed the entire second half of the season after getting concussed in the Winter Classic.

The NFL was hit that summer with a lawsuit by former players, alleging that the league had concealed information about the long-term health risks of multiple concussions and repeated blows to the head. In 2013, in what was seen as a victory for the multibillion-dollar NFL, the league and lawyers for what had become more than 4500 plaintiffs agreed to a $765 million settlement (those terms are being augmented as it heads to final judicial approval).

The NHL was initially hit with a class-action suit by 10 former players. That list has since grown. The wrinkle here is that fighting, something the NHL is still trying to phase out, has long been glorified. In March, the NHL tried to have the suit dismissed, and lost.

Fighting is not the Department of Player Safety's focus. Now four seasons old, the office came into being alongside the implementation of Rule 48, which explicitly bans hits, blindside or not, where the opponent's head is "the principle point of contact." For a gruesome example of this, see Ottawa defenseman Eric Gryba's open-ice hit on Montreal's Lars Eller in the 2013 playoffs. Gryba, under the new rule, got a two-game suspension. In many circles, though, it was "a hockey play."

That phrase comes up a lot on the 12th floor of NHL headquarters. "There's a lot of guys that've played 25 years of their life without this rule, and then all of a sudden now they're told it's different. It's a slow-turning thing," VP Damian Echevarrieta said.

Half an hour before the 7 p.m. puck drop for Game 3 of the Rangers-Penguins series, Echevarrieta was in his usual spot, perched like a desk sergeant in a police precinct above the row of coordinators below. The boys were tired tonight, after a long Saturday of playoff games.

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Echevarrieta is sort of the godfather of the game-watchers. Like them, he's a civilian—from Brooklyn, early 40s and goateed, with a wife and child and a house on Staten Island—a tech-savvy former Rangers intern who played college hockey at St. John's. Now Echevarrieta is here, the punishment whisperer of Player Safety, virtually anonymous to a league that he knows by heart.

"He didn't break the hand, he gave a bone bruise to the best player on the team, who had two points the next game and who was shooting the puck harder than half of the league last night," Echevarrieta said, when I asked why the department didn't suspend the Montreal's P.K. Subban for his two-handed slash of Ottawa's Mark Stone in Game 1 of the Senators Canadiens' series.

Stone, I pointed out, just happened to be Ottawa's hottest forward. Echevarrieta spoke at length about the play. "If you look at it, he's beating Subban to the front of the net. The puck is at the point." Subban wasn't even looking at Stone when he slashed him, he added. "There's no way that Subban could have possibly targeted in between his glove and his elbow pad." Besides, Subban had been thrown out of the game. "If you really watch it, it's a hockey play," Echevarrieta said. "And again, I go back to, it was a penalty. We're not saying it was a legal play." He paused. "Sorry, you got me fired up a little," he said.

Predators players protect their goalie from Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.

Not long after this, as the puck dropped in Pittsburgh, Quintal came into the room. Because he had a long and distinguished NHL career, he carried with him an atmosphere of royalty. "Q," as everyone calls the head of the department, was wearing a V-neck sweater, jeans, and designer glasses. Like so many NHL-ers, Quintal has a cordial, laid-back demeanor, a low voice with a French-Canadian accent and a story about the time he broke his orbital bone.

He took a seat up by Echevarrieta. Quintal worked for original senior vp Brendan Shanahan before unofficially taking over when Shanahan left to run the Maple Leafs. Like Shanahan, a one time teammate in St. Louis, Quintal was never a Lady Byng candidate, amassing 1,320 penalty minutes in 1,037 games. Quintal said he was suspended once—for kneeing Carolina's Bob Boughner in the head during a fight). After retirement in 2005, Quintal tried being a commentator on French CBC, but he didn't like it. "I was too close to those guys," he said of the Canadiens' players. "I needed to criticize, and it's not me."

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It was Shanahan who persuaded him to join the department in 2011. Last summer, Quintal re-interviewed to become chief.

This season, Quintal doled out 27 suspensions, down slightly from Shanahan's 33 last season.

The longest, for a hit, went to the Flyers' Zach Rinaldo for charging and boarding the Penguins' Kris Letang. Letang missed a game with concussion symptoms. Rinaldo, a so-called repeat offender, was suspended for eight games.

"Sometimes, for two weeks, we don't see anything," Quintal said. Then there are four suspensions in a week, reminding him that you can't jump to conclusions. When supplementary discipline is on the table, the decision-makers include Quintal, Burke, Echevarrieta, Pat LaFontaine ( consultant) and new addition Chris Pronger (an announcement that brought howls, since Pronger is still under contract with the Flyers).

Most disciplinary hearings take place on the phone. There's a formula for determining the length of punishment, based in part on whether the player who got fouled is out with an injury. With the uncertain recovery timeline of concussions, though, factoring this into a suspension can be tricky, Quintal said.

Up on the big screen, Carl Hagelin scored on a breakaway to make it 1-0 Rangers. Quintal was talking about how the department is better-known now. "When I got hired by the league, it was the first time I walked into the NHL office," he said. "You have no idea. I mean, you take a nap, you show up with your coffee, your gear is there, and you play hockey. You don't know behind the scenes what's going on."