The AHL Needs To Make Changes
Ask any hockey fan about the NHL's Department of Player Safety and you'll probably be met with eye rolls, snorts of disgust, or flat out anger. As ineffective and inconsistent as discipline can be at the NHL level, it's shortcomings pale in comparison to the American Hockey League.
The in game refereeing does a terrible job of keeping players safe, and instead lets things get so out of control that people get hurt. When players do malicious or dangerous things that have no place in hockey and go unpunished in the game, it's supposed to be the league's job to hand out discipline to those players to teach them that their actions are not acceptable. I say "supposed to be" because the AHL as a league does a terrible job at carrying out this portion of their jobs and it's the players who are suffering the consequences.
To illustrate what I'm describing, here are a few examples just from the Griffins and IceHogs game #2.
The Griffins frustrated the IceHogs by beating them in game 1, thanks to Teemu Pulkkinen's hat trick, and the Hogs frustration continued to increase as game 2 went on and they were held to only 1 goal despite their considerable efforts. It's pretty standard for the losing team to release some of their frustration be being more physical and taking some of the aggression out, but in the 2nd period the Hogs started to get out of control. They would hit, shove, and jab at Griffins players after whistles and things like that, and the referees called nothing, thereby condoning the behavior. Where this really became a problem was late in the 3rd period when the Griffins had a 4-1 lead.
The IceHogs were incredibly frustrated and it was clear they weren't going to win this game unless a miracle occurred. With 6:20 left in the 3rd and the Griffins up 4-1, Viktor Svedberg boarded Louis-Marc Aubry hard and the officials indicated it would be a penalty. Where the officials really dropped the ball is by only calling a 2 minute roughing penalty on Ryan Hartman after he punches Andreas Athanasiou in the face. He wasn't given a 10 minute misconduct, or booted from the game, instead punching a guy in the face after the whistle was only worth 2 minutes in the sin bin. Athanasiou is still wearing a jaw shield after being boarded in February and suffering a broken jaw. He left the game immediately and there's been no word on his status for game 3.
While the Griffins are on their 5on3 power play as a result of the 2 minor penalties to Hartman and Svedberg, Tyler Bertuzzi is violently crosschecked with no penalty called. At this point there's no question that the game is already getting out of control and with only a few minutes left, the ref's need to take control of the game and make it clear that unacceptable behavior is, well... unacceptable. They don't do it, and instead continue to let things boil over. In the next video, goalie Michael Leighton takes a couple jabs at the back of Tyler Bertuzzi's legs, then Stephen Johns blatantly and forcefully crosschecks Bert to the ice. No call is made here and Bertuzzi is just expected to take the abuse. But wait, there's more. On the next shift, Leighton continues to jab and swipe at Bertuzzi, including a very intimate jab in Bertuzzi's nether regions. After several jabs, Bert swipes Leighton's stick away from him. Leighton responds by punching Bert in the back of the head. Bertuzzi and Ville Pokka exchange words, then Phillip Danault jumps Bertuzzi and tackles him to the ground. Danault received 2 minutes for cross checking and a 10 minute unsportsmanlike conduct, Leighton received 2 minutes for roughing, and somehow Bertuzzi got 2 minor roughing penalties, so the Griffins weren't even given a power play out of all of that. Calling 2 minors on Bertuzzi was piss poor decision making by the refs. What message did that send to the IceHogs? That they could continue taking out their frustrations and would be punished minimally.
The Griffins won the game 5-1 and took a 2-0 series lead, and after the final horn sounded, the referees had already established they had no control of the game, and chaos ensued. The icing on the cake was when Pierre-Cedric Labrie took a shot at Griffins goaltender Thomas McCollum. At this point, the game is over so the misconducts handed out don't really mean much at all, but if players are hurt their teams have to deal with those consequences.
Here are the penalties that were handed out at the end of the period, although as I said, by now you're not really punishing the players for their behavior.
|3 - RFD Bass, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
|3 - RFD Labrie, 20:00 - Unsportsmanlike conduct, 2 min|
|3 - RFD Labrie, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
|3 - RFD Labrie, 20:00 - Game misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.5(i)) 10 min <--- Rule 75.5(i) is a game misconduct given to a player who persists in any course of conduct for which he was previously assessed a misconduct penalty in the same game.|
|3 - RFD Seabrook, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
|3 - GR Evans, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
|3 - GR Mantha, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
|3 - GR Porter, 20:00 - Misconduct - Unsportsmanlike conduct, (75.4) 10 min|
Rule 23.2 states
"23.2 Fines and Suspensions - A player incurring a game misconduct penalty shall incur an automatic fine of one hundred dollars ($100) and the case shall be reported to the President who shall have full power to impose such further penalties by way of suspension or fine on the penalized player, goalkeeper or any other player involved in the altercation."
but apparently the President saw nothing suspension worthy because there have been no suspensions or further discipline announced from this game.
I'm not picking on the IceHogs specifically, because what happened in this game is something that happens frequently all over the league. The culture in the AHL has long been that of meat headed tough guys who aren't good enough to play in the NHL, so they'll beat the crap out of people in the AHL. Many fans show up at games rooting for fights and dirty hits because they find it entertaining. That's the way the league has been for a very long time, but the role of the AHL is changing at a rapid rate and culture and attitudes need to change as well.
Changes aren't going to happen overnight, and a transformation in the league will take time, but steps need to be taken now to start those changes.
What am I asking for?
Start with making referees enforce the rules, and punish players when they go too far. Punch a defenseless guy in the face after the whistle? Give him a 2 minute, a game misconduct, toss him from the game, and probably suspend him. Those consequences will dissuade players from doing the actions they're being punished for. When a team starts running around trying to hurt someone because they're losing and frustrated, punish them and their team, and throw them out. Players are getting needlessly injured and it's the league's responsibility to do something about it. In the NHL cap era, more and more NHL teams have had to rely on drafting and developing their players instead of paying them truck loads of money, consequently an increasing number of AHL players are prospect players who will play int he NHL. No longer is the AHL a league of out of work NHL'ers who sign up to be punching bags for the chance to keep playing hockey. Now we have a lot of skilled players who are in the league as a (hopefully) pit stop at the instruction of their NHL teams.
To be clear, I'm not talking about removing fighting, big hits, or scrums. I'm only talking about dangerous actions that aren't part of the game and that put players in significantly more danger than is reasonable.
The purpose of the AHL has changed and evolved, it's usage by NHL teams has changed, it's player composition has changed, and it's past time the league starts conducting itself to reflect those changes. It's going to take baby steps to get to where they need to be, but those steps need to start now.