The Dept. of Player Safety: Further proof that the ‘Code’ no longer exists?

There is no shortage of critiques of Brendan Shanahan and his oxymoronic Department of Player Safety.  Speaking in his suit from his CNN like ‘war room’, Shanahan offers a very inhuman and sterilized account of some of the most atrocious hits in hockey. He stands, sans emotion, and delivers a verdict as a judge would to a convicted criminal.  The only difference is that unlike Law & Order, we neither hear the uproar of the crowd when they are unhappy with the ruling, nor the reaction of the offender to his sentencing (or lack thereof).

The Department of Player Safety is supposed to act like a prison watchtower, keeping order without having to actually impose its will.  It is what social theorist Michel Foucault would call a panopticon.  It surveils without being seen.  It governs from a distance.  The only problem with Shanahan’s panopticon is that there is no fear attached to being surveilled.  Players almost laugh in the face of his youtube videos.  As articulated in this article, The NHL is a Joke! Player safety the biggest oxymoron:

In many ways, Shanahan continues to condone the worst that hockey offers by merely shuffling players about with regular season suspensions and fails miserably by not removing the most reprehensible behaviours and attitudes from players that are more than willing to damage another player’s brain. His suspensions, while more lengthy than his incompetent predecessor’s, and his video explanations, while more clear in their reasonings, do not, and will not, stop the impunity that many NHL players have towards one another.

In other words, what is the incentive for any player to think twice? For anyone who has read Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics, you will remember that the authors rely heavily on personal incentive as indicators for rational behaviour.  As an example, if the punishment for drunk driving were random road-blocks that would result in execution on the spot, surely more people would think twice before getting behind the wheel.  The Department of Player Safety neither strikes fear in the minds of those who have multiple offenses to their names nor does it make any other player feel like their safety is well protected from the NHL executive offices.

Now, let’s discuss how I interpret the Department of Player Safety to be symbolic of how the Code is either facing major reconstruction or is simply being eroded away.  The Code, as has been discussed in numerous other Hockey in Society posts, is fundamentally based on vigilante/frontier justice.  It is order out of chaos.  Also, much like the number one rule of fight club – never talk about fight club – no one talks outright about the Code or those who have transgressed it (although, if you listen closely to interviews words such as honour, respect and courage all allude to the Code) but they all know it’s there.  So for a sport that prides itself on policing itself, is not the Department of Player Safety a big kick in the nads to the Code?  The major argument for the Code from every player has been that it keeps the game safe.  It keeps goons in line and creates more room for skilled players to do their thing. Well, how safe does the game look today? Where was the room created for Daniel Sedin?  Show me the fear in Duncan Keith.  As I wrote before about the lack of fear in Milan Lucic on his hit on Ryan Miller – it does not appear that the Code still exists.  When the mafia runs your neighbourhood there is an unwritten order to society, and when the mafia moves you have only the police to rely on.  This is the situation we face with the NHL today: the mafia no longer has a stranglehold on the town  and no one gives a flying jockstrap about the police.

Photo from the National Post

Personally, I feel that the punishment for dangerous hits should match the injury.  In other words, Chara should have been out of the lineup as long as Pacioretty.  Marchand wouldn’t have played until Salo was healthy.  Steckl/Hedman should have sat in the stands as long as Crosby did.  And Bertuzzi, well Bertuzzi wouldn’t be playing. Sound a bit harsh? Maybe. But these 3 and 5 game suspensions aren’t working.  If your career was dependent upon your actions, I would hope that it would make you think twice about sticking your elbow or knee out. If fear of transgression neither comes from within, nor from an external force then all we have is chaos.

The Code, in all of its masculine fear-mongering, at least prevented certain behaviours.  The Department of Player Safety, on the other hand, is purely reactionary.  It is detention for highly paid bullies.  Perhaps, all the rhetoric about the Code making the game safer was right.

About courtneyszto
I am a Vancouver Canucks fan through and through. I have worked in event management, outdoor education, the golf industry, and coached tennis. Currently, I am a PhD student in Communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. My research focuses on the Punjabi-Sikh experience with hockey in Canada. Other research interests include: corporate social responsibility, (ethical) consumption, gender, race, sport for development and peace, and media studies. I write for my own blog, The Rabbit Hole, and occasionally contribute to Interrupt Magazine. I also created and manage the social media account @offsideplays that works to expose everyday experiences with discrimination in sport, physical activity and health.

8 Responses to The Dept. of Player Safety: Further proof that the ‘Code’ no longer exists?

  1. Paul Busch says:

    I’m in agreement that the suspensions are not tough enough, and that they need to be in order to make players play with more respect. I don’t know how much authority Shanahan has to increase the penalties but he needs support from the league and GMs before that will happen.

    I disagree that “The Code” or the concept of policing the game has done anything to stop cheap shots or make the game safer. It clearly is all about revenge and retribution. I’ve posted stats on my site – http://itsnotpartofthegame.blogspot.ca/2012/02/additional-statistics-on-impact-of.html – that show when fighting is reduced, non-fighting PIMs are also reduced. And teams that fight the most also earn more non-fighting PIMs. The enforcers are contributing to the violence, not controlling it.

  2. courtneyszto says:

    Thanks for commenting Paul. When I say perhaps, the Code makes the game safer I mean it in relative terms (“safer”). You are right that enforcers contribute to violence and that controlled violence is still violence. It’s the lack of respect that concerns me. Perhaps it was always there and now the media is just hyping it more. Players used to warn each other before they would lay a big hit so that the other player could brace himself and now it just seems like pure intent to injure.

  3. I really like the analogy of the mafia and the police. When I wrote about this subject before, I first dismissed the idea that the Code could be a more effective form of regulation than an official form. Then I added a PS, because there’s also the chance that official regulation doesn’t work, which leaves where, as you suggest, we are today.

    As a former enforcer-when-he-needed-to-be, and also as a former skill player, I would love to know Shanny’s REAL thoughts on this. I see the either/or argument, that it’s the police or the mob, both with their drawbacks. That’s realistic, I think, but at the same time the majority of players play with integrity. The real solution would be to increase that, but that’s an internal thing for the players. Makes me wonder what role the locker room has on all this. Like, does someone in the Bruins locker room give the impression, I don’t want that on my team, Chara and Marchant? I’m guessing that wouldn’t be the liberty-loving goalie, but wouldn’t all these guys have a mutual interest in player safety, being players themselves? Or do they think they can be the exception, that that scorpion won’t sting ‘em on the way across the river?

  4. courtneyszto says:

    I think the locker room is a HUGE factor on how the team plays. I know some recreational players that play with a Marchand-like-edge and I don’t like playing with them. It’s ruins the game for me. But the team, as a whole, seems to accept it either outright, or by not saying anything. A grassroots change would be great, leave the suits out of it but easier said than done. As you say, players should be the most keen on player safety but performance trumps safety (as in all sports). And performance in hockey is largely based on intimidation (or at least traditionally) – hence playing with a chip on your shoulder. t’s a proactive way of playing hockey – take them out before they can take you out.

    • just found this on Puckdaddy, from Pavel Datsyuk:

      “Look, you can write any rule you want. But everything is caused by something else. Everything depends on us, on hockey players. It depends on how we treat each other, how much respect we show each other. Of course emotions sometimes take over. But there were cases when it led to someone’s career being jeopardized.”

      • courtneyszto says:

        Well said Mr.Datsyuk. But is he saying that these choices come down to the individual or is he speaking of hockey players as a collective? I might argue that the hockey player is where “something else” manifests.

        • Good point. Unfortunately the interviewer was not very good (Datsyuk makes the interview) and did not follow up on this question. My guess would be that Datsyuk sees it as a collective (he is Russian after all) and so to commit purposeful violence against another player would be to commit it against your own kind. This attitude can only be countered by an attitude that the hockey player is an individual first, and so can act exceptionally. In 1972 Bobby Clarke two-handed Kharlamov on the ankle early on, effectively eliminating a player the Canadians could not otherwise stop. Not something that comes up a lot over here, but something that is revealing about the dominating attitudes of the two hockey cultures. NA hockey’s come a long way since the Broad Street Bullies, but the Marchands and Claude Lemieuxs reveal that that infection has not yet left NA game completely. You could probably argue that it’s effected the Russian/European game, but I’m not qualified to make that claim.

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