The NHL’s history of choosing violence over safety is now coming under fire

Toronto Star

May 16, 2021

The New York Rangers recently issued a statement indicating George Parros — who heads the NHL Department of Player Safety — is “unfit” to remain in his position. The harsh statement was notable, especially coming from the NHL’s most valuable franchise and representing its largest media market.

The statement was issued after the Department of Player Safety decided that Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson would not be suspended, despite his egregious actions during a game against the Rangers.

The Rangers’ claim that Parros is unfit implies that he is unqualified for his role. So, what should the qualifications be for taking on this job?

The NHL has traditionally had former players assume the position. Parros previously played in the NHL, where he was known primarily as an enforcer, amassing 169 fights and 18 goals during his career. Preceding Parros in the role were former NHL players Stéphane Quintal and Brendan Shanahan.

Many of the NHL management positions are occupied by NHL players from previous generations, and many old ways of the game persist. “Hits” delivered by each team is a key metric identified during a game.

The Rangers and Capitals were opponents again just two nights later. The decision to not suspend Wilson deliberately set the stage for frontier justice. Media headlines questioned whether the Rangers would seek revenge. Some questioned if the Rangers were “soft” because the team lacks obvious enforcers in their lineup.

The immediate outcome of the rematch was three simultaneous fights during the game’s opening faceoff. Six fights took place within the game’s opening five minutes. Wilson was challenged to a fight within seconds of his first shift, and left the game with an upper-body injury.

The NHL created the Department of Player Safety at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. “Safety” suggests being protected from harm or danger. Still, if the true purpose was about safety, more attention might be given to the game’s rules. The Department of Player Safety might deliberate about a ban on headshots. Seeking to eliminate or deter fighting would be another consideration.

Undoubtedly, such changes would require approval from the league’s top ranks. In his role as NHL commissioner, however, Gary Bettman serves the interests of franchise owners, rather than that of players.

The NHL’s brand identity is reaching a watershed moment. NHL documents, made public from concussion litigation, reveal the league’s previous standpoint as “we sell and promote hate.” And while the NHL seeks to reinforce its associations with physicality, ruggedness and toughness, they are also trying to evolve and align with themes of inclusiveness and diversity.

The NHL successfully generated publicity and increased attention towards games — late in the regular season between the Rangers and Capitals — that otherwise did not carry much importance. Still, is all publicity considered good publicity?

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