NHL Whiffs on Safety Issues

By Chris Nosek

“We view this as a dereliction of duty by NHL Head of Player Safety, George Parros, and believe he is unfit to continue in his current role.” – New York Rangers

As head of the Department of Player Safety, George Parros has one top priority – the overall safety and well-being of the PLAYERS….not one player, not some players… ALL of them. As despicable as Tom Wilson has been at times on the ice, he is still a player in this league. The lack of suspension for his takedown of Artemi Panarin, in addition to the unnecessary hit to the head of Pavel Buchnevich which preceded the scrum with Panarin, wasn’t just a failure of punishment, but as the Rangers statement called it a “dereliction of duty.” By not issuing a more severe penalty against Wilson, Parros and the group of people whose sole purpose is to protect the players of the league, slapped a giant target on the back of Tom Wilson. 

Now – let me be clear – I am NOT condoning any acts of retaliation from any New York Ranger or any other player in this league – BUT every person who’s heard of the game of hockey has also heard the age-old adage “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So, let’s not be naive to think that there weren’t a few players, coaches, and fans who wanted to take their own swing at Wilson after seeing the laughable $5,000 fine issued to him. Regardless of Panarin’s status as a “star player in this league” or not, Wilson has a clear history of targeting the head of other players – an issue that has already caused this league a ton of grief (more on that later). 

Wednesday night, the stage was set thanks in part to the COVID-19 outbreak and NHL had center stage on NBC Sports as the two teams faced off against in the second of their back-to-back games and each teams first game since Monday night’s incident was followed by the lackluster punishment issued on Tuesday. The shameful failure of George Parros was on full display as the on-ice officials doled out over an hour and a half in penalty minutes, including 10 penalties totaling over an hour before the first minute of play was completed. So I ask you George Parros – is that safe? The line brawl to start the game was as predictable as fans mocking the Houston Astros with trash cans (yea, we all saw that coming too) and that act alone should be enough for Parros to be terminated from his position. The lack of foresight from everyone in the office of the Department of Player Safety to do anything that would prevent that brawl is a clear cut failure to fulfill their obligations. 

The players are saying it themselves for the entire world to hear: Ryan Strome called the punishment “a joke” and added “it sends a bad message” and that the league “missed one big time.” By not punishing Wilson more severely, the league sent a message that it is ok to do what he did – and have thus left it to the players to police it further. With 11 fighting and 5 misconduct penalties issued during this past game, the players did just that. Now, the Department of Player Safety wants to punish the players for the retention after they themselves failed to punish the actions which led to it. This type of circular logic is just inexcusable when it comes to health. If Parros isn’t terminated from his position over this, is it going to take a player lying unconscious or even dead on the ice for people to take notice? 

Furthermore, to punish the retaliation would further exemplify the inconsistency that has existed within the Department of Player Safety under George Parros when compared to two other incidents in two other games from this same week. While the Rangers lost Panarin for the remainder of their season, Mark Friedman remained unscathed after taking a hit that sent him “dangerously into the boards” from Flyer Shayne Gostisbehere. A hit so egregious that the department issued a 2-game ban for Gostisbehere. As if this wasn’t enough, on Monday, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby took down Travis Konecny and drove his head into the ice THREE times and was not even issued a penalty on the ice. The amount of inconsistency is so horrendous and non-existent that there isn’t even enough to make a joke about how bad it has been.

Now – why all the outrage over one incident? Well, just look at Tom Wilson and his 560+ game history since coming into the league back in 2013-14. Over his first four seasons in the league, Wilson played all 82 games for three of those seasons – proving he knows how to play the game in a safe way. It was in 2017-18 when his first suspension was handed down for 2 preseason games for a hit on Thomas Roberts of the St. Louis Blues that his rapsheet started. After that, and during the season, your department handed Wilson an additional 4-game ban for a boarding hit against Sammy Blais, also of the Blues. Later that season, you showed ineptitude when you allowed him to get away with his hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg during the Capitals playoff match up against the Columbus Blue Jackets, only to turn around and suspend him for 3 playoff games after his illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reece. That’s three suspensions in ONE season, information that the Department of Player Safety took into consideration on September 20th during the 2018-19 season, when they handed Tom Wilson his 20-game suspension for ANOTHER check to the head of Oskar Sundqvist of the Philadelphia Flyers. Even after referring to his fourth suspension over 105 games as “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety,” this suspension was still somehow reduced to 14 games on appeal. 

While the required 18-month window has passed that Wilson is no longer a “repeat offender” under the terms of the NHL and NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, you are still able to use past history when considering future supplemental discipline – and yes that includes the history from earlier this season when the department suspended Wilson for 7 games after he took out Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins with ANOTHER hit to the head. There is “playing with an edge” and the “if you hit me and I’ll hit you back” type of hockey and those, I am in full support of – and no I don’t believe fighting should be removed from the game (before someone starts crying about that too). However, Tom Wilson has been suspended FIVE times over a career that is only EIGHT seasons long and ALL FIVE have involved high hits to the head. This is “head-hunting” and very different from physical hockey. 

The Department of Player Safety has now failed to act in a responsive and a preemptive manor regarding Tom Wilson and set the stage for what happened on Wednesday night. What is George Parros doing correctly over in his department? Why isn’t Crosby punished when Gostisbehere is? Why are Tom Wilson’s punishments only becoming more lenient? The Rangers are 100% correct in questioning George Parros’ ability to do his job and now that the league has fined them for saying so, they are only proving once and for all that “the health and safety of our players” is in fact NOT at the top of their priority list.

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