Colin Campbell's Failure To Communicate

Jonathan Willis
June 21 2011 01:41PM

As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, last night I was listening to Colin Campbell’s interview with the Fan 590 from earlier in the day and passing along some choice quotes. It was a bizarre interview in a lot of ways, ranging from Colin Campbell’s anger at the victims of hits from behind to his feelings that those pesky emails that were revealed earlier this season were totally appropriate to his not so subtly-worded desire to take a picture of his son, Marc Savard and the Stanley Cup and shove it up Tyler Dellow’s keester.

There was another point in the interview I found especially noteworthy however, one that I felt deserved more than 140 characters of consideration.

Asked by Bob McCown whether he felt his hands were tied when handing out suspensions at times, Campbell volunteered the following:

I think if someone were to do this discipline in a different way, my recommendation would be this – and I know this can’t be done this way because of the politics of the league, and the players’ association and everything – but I think the best way to do this discipline would be to stand back, look at the play, know everything, know the game, render a decision, and not have to answer to anybody. Not have to go on your show, not have to answer to the managers, just render a decision and not care about the pressures that are out there, not listen to what people are saying and just do it.

(This quote is from roughly the 13:30 mark of the interview linked above.)

In a lot of ways, it’s easy to justify that kind of quote. Campbell operated in a highly public position, and even had he performed perfectly there would have been a lot of criticism. It isn’t a job for the thin-skinned, and so I can understand the appeal of not being forced to explain himself. That attitude may not be ideal, but I don’t think there’s a need to be overly critical of that perspective of it.

However, I do think the statement showcases a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the most important parts of Colin Campbell’s job: communicating the reason for a suspension to players, managers and fans.

I say that because it isn’t because of politics that Campbell has to explain suspensions. He might think that the primary purpose of suspensions handed down from the league office is to punish players who err, but it isn’t: the primary purpose of a suspension is to teach managers and players what kind of play is considered over the line, and to show the fans at home, including young hockey players, what sort of behaviour will be tolerated (I’m generally not wild about ‘what about the children’ lines of reasoning, but in this case I think it fits).

When a suspension gets slapped on Player X, part of the purpose is to punish, and to give the appearance of justice being done. The primary purpose, however, is to send a message to other players and the men who manage them: this sort of action is not considered appropriate by the NHL, and we want to take it out of the game. When the league disciplinarian explains a suspension, he’s not just trying to justify it for interested parties like the teams in question and their fans, he’s trying to show the entire league what behaviour is unacceptable and dissuade them from committing similar actions.

Campbell’s actions often showed a lack of understanding of that basic principle. His suspensions were erratic to the point that the process was referred to as the ‘Wheel of Justice.’ The punishments varied wildly depending on the player involved; two players named ‘Chris’ might commit nearly identical offences, but if one was named ‘Simon’ and the other ‘Pronger,’ the punishment would change a lot.

A lot of what makes suspensions effective is their predictability – each player should know the ramifications of their decisions before they make them. Clear communication is key – when the disciplinarian hands down a suspension, he should explain the reasons for it so that all can understand. He should do this, not because he feels forced to by league politics, but because he understands it is an essential part of doing his job effectively.

It is to be hoped that Brendan Shanahan grasps that point to a greater extent than his predecessor did.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Tha Legion
June 21 2011, 01:45PM
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I don't see why its such a huge deal that he doesn't feel the need to reference a blogger by name, still an interesting story though. And to be fair Campbell is a quack

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#3 Cam Charron
June 21 2011, 01:48PM
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Great post. I like Shanahan, but I still don't know why the NHL didn't opt for a retired judge in the situation. A legal man understands precedent and wouldn't let personal bias get in the way of talking to experts and hearing both sides of the argument fairly.

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#4 Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things
June 21 2011, 01:48PM
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"The primary purpose, however, is to send a message to other players and the men who manage them: this sort of action is not considered appropriate by the NHL, and we want to take it out of the game."

Totally 100% agree. The same is true of any penal system. The punishment is a punishment, but the severity should be appropriate for the infraction so it serves as an adequate deterrent for those who might be tempted to break the rules.

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#5 Tha Legion
June 21 2011, 01:55PM
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@jw

I know I was referencing the first part regarding dellows, edited in the stuff about him being a quack to reflect article, really I just like to ruin the dreaded f word

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#6 Archaeologuy
June 21 2011, 02:12PM
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Personally, I am just fine with Campbell being angry at the victims of some of these hits. I get pissed too when player X turns his back on a forechecker and gets creamed face first into the glass.

In staying with the spirit of the article, it might have saved a few players had Campbell better communicated that turning your back to an oncoming checker was innappropriate and would be a valid defense for the hitter. Maybe then players would take a split second to rethink their ill-conceived plan to spin away from a check at the last second or admire a pass.

I dont always agree with Colin's decisions, but when I do I always drink Dos Equis but I have never had a problem blaming the victim for their part in making a bad situation.

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#8 John Chambers
June 21 2011, 02:28PM
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This is a great article, Willis. With all of the draft and trade speculation going on this week, I'm glad you put in an intelligent piece about the NHL's erratic track record on discipline.

'Soupy' Campbell comes from an arrogant faction of the NHL good old boys club who I feel hold back the evolution of the game. Too often the league seems to take an arbitrary course of action regarding critical matters, such as scheduling, team relocations, rule changes, the All-Star game format, etc, without soliciting fan input or appropriately communicating to media and fans in a way that doesn't sound dictatorial. The theme and quotes you've selected are appropriate inasmuch Campbell's disregard for media and fan relations echoes Bettman's disregard for transparency and accountability with fans and media.

Thankfully Campbell has been dismissed in favour of a more personnable (and likeable) Shanahan. The NHL might want to consider a kinder gentler machine gun hand to undertake PR on behalf of those gremlins Bettman and Daly.

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#9 Archaeologuy
June 21 2011, 02:29PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Even if it communicated the way you felt the game needed to be played and consequently would be judged?

Doesnt that fit with your line, "The primary purpose of a suspension is to teach managers and players what kind of play is considered over the line, and to show the fans at home, including young hockey players, what sort of behaviour will be tolerated."?

It doesnt have to be presented in an emotional way. He could have matter-of-factly just said, "Player X willingly created a dangerous situation when he turned his back to the oncoming checker and was hurt after the subsequent hit. There is an automatic Z game suspension for a hit from behind that causes any player to leave the game but there will be no supplemental discipline to Player Y. Player X has been warned that his play was the largest factor in the incident and we wish him a full recovery."

Done. Communicated in a unemotional way and a learning point for every player in the league. Hitting from behind is a suspendable offense, but nothing extra will come if the "victim" created the circumstances for the dangerous play.

That's how I would do it, for whatever that's worth.*

*Nothing

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#10 Hemmertime
June 21 2011, 02:45PM
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@Archaeologuy

I loved your crossed out line. Props to you sir

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#11 John Chambers
June 21 2011, 02:50PM
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@Archaeologuy

"The offending player (David Steckel, Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres, etc) is being suspended for X games due to an unnessarily aggressive play that the league's disciplinary committee has deemed to fall outside of our code of conduct.

The committee's primary mandates are to a) uphold the competitive integrity of the league by penalizing offending aggressors and b) ensuring the safety of our players against dangerous incidents on the ice.

Specific the this case, the offending player targeted the head of (Crosby, Savard, Eberle), an action that the committee feels obligated to take strict action against both as a disciplinary measure and as a deterrent against future incidents that may affect the health and performance of our athletes."

*Something like this may be an example of better communication without getting dramatic or emotional. The fact that Campbell doesn't feel an obligation to have to justify league disciplinary decisions undermines the whole point of a code of player conduct and safety. Without setting precedents and clearly establishing the boundaries, how will players know what is reasonable conduct and what isn't?

Of course, Campbell is an old hard-ass who likes a league full of tough guys instead of little fake artists.

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#12 Archaeologuy
June 21 2011, 02:57PM
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@John Chambers

It seemed like at the end of his tenure you really had no idea what number was going to come from him. If anything changes, I hope that the 2nd set of rules for Star players gets thrown out and when any player, no matter of status, commits a foul the punishment will be consistent.

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#14 Archaeologuy
June 21 2011, 03:09PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Totally agree. Whoever does the job must remain completely professional at all times. The way the game is portrayed by the media today you'd think the NHL was a sanctioned c*ck-fight on skates. Expressing an emotion like anger over a perceived victim would get ugly fast. It has to be framed carefully but unapologetically.

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#15 Bucknuck
June 21 2011, 03:15PM
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Great article JW. You are absolutely right.

Communication is a huge responsibility that goes along with being the disciplinarian, and for him not to know that and have retained his position for so long is sad. Just sad. The league needs to get better at putting the right people in these important roles.

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#16 Team Hall
June 21 2011, 03:46PM
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So, he basically admitted that politics govern a lot of the disciplinary decisions. Really nice, way to confirm the conspiracy theories. If a player is from Toronto or Boston, that's different than a player from Edmonton.

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#17 Ender
June 21 2011, 03:52PM
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I don't think I have much more to add to the conversation at this point beyond what has already been said, but there isn't a props button for articles yet (I'm looking at you, Dictator-For-Life) so I need to do it manually.

Mad props for a fantastic article and a solid and fresh take, Willis.

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#18 Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"
June 21 2011, 04:09PM
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Team Hall wrote:

So, he basically admitted that politics govern a lot of the disciplinary decisions. Really nice, way to confirm the conspiracy theories. If a player is from Toronto or Boston, that's different than a player from Edmonton.

As much as I cheered for Boston it adds credibility to Vancouver's coach complaining on his team getting a suspension and Boston not getting one. Personally I thought the Boston hit was OK but I was cheering for Boston. How did you guys see it?

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#19 Pajamah
June 21 2011, 04:40PM
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@JW

Actually Willis, I'm thinking "Pronger" and "Simon" wouldn't actually change the suspension length, as they are both repeat offenders, and despite the difference in talent, are both horrendously stupid.

Now if you said "Drury" as the other Chris, sure....

Other than that, well written

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#20 cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan
June 21 2011, 04:45PM
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Tha Legion wrote:

I don't see why its such a huge deal that he doesn't feel the need to reference a blogger by name, still an interesting story though. And to be fair Campbell is a quack

some may suggest giving dellow even more attention then he deserves is probably not worth the time....

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#21 Tha Legion
June 21 2011, 04:56PM
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@cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

I wouldn't see it that way, I have had my issue with the guy but I respect his work, he should be credited for finding the information I just don't see why Campbell would need to reference him by name, since he prolly don't much like that website now.

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#22 MoJo
June 21 2011, 05:21PM
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I'm guessing this conversation has been put to bed, but as an Aussie, I'd suggest looking at the way the two footy codes down here (NRL and AFL) implement their disciplinary systems. Both hav a system where the offences (striking, dangerous play, etc) have particular grades. Grade 1 is careless, Grade 2 Reckless and Grade 3 is intentional. So for each offence at each grade, there are established guidelines as to what the punishment is - i.e. Grade 1 striking is roughly 1-2 games, Grade 2, 3-4 games etc.

Where it gets complicated (If you're still following me), is that rather than give out game suspensions, they give points where 100 points equals a game suspension. Point totals can be halved by pleading guilty to charges - so a player facing a 200 point charge can plead guilty, reducing the suspension from 2 to 1 games. The flip side of this is that previous offences (depending on the severity) create a loading for the initial points assessment. This is a way of increasing punishments for serial offenders.

While not a perfect system, the majority of controversy now comes from grading of charges - but the actual punishments and perceived inconsistencies are barely an issue anymore.

I don;t see how something like this could not be implemented in Hockey. It sounds complicated, but once the system gets going it saves the administrators a world of pain.

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#23 Dog Train
June 21 2011, 05:21PM
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There didn't seem to be any system or reasoning in place. I agree that some communication might have lessened some of the grey area. Hopefully, Shanahan can improve an aspect of the NHL that has become a joke.

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#24 Oilcruzer
June 21 2011, 05:29PM
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Team Hall wrote:

So, he basically admitted that politics govern a lot of the disciplinary decisions. Really nice, way to confirm the conspiracy theories. If a player is from Toronto or Boston, that's different than a player from Edmonton.

Not quite.

I think its more you can't suspend Thornton as easily as Stortini for the same infraction.

Turtling should be a suspension as should embellishment. They should re review the game after it's played to pick up what was missed.

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#25 Oilcruzer
June 21 2011, 05:31PM
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Where the heck is Wanye?

Good article Willis.

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#26 pelhem grenville
June 21 2011, 06:11PM
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Oilcruzer wrote:

Where the heck is Wanye?

Good article Willis.

...good question...is the bat signal fixed?

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#27 Velo
June 21 2011, 06:59PM
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"the statement showcases a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the most important parts of Colin Campbell’s job: communicating the reason for a suspension to players, managers and fans."

Played since 4. Played in Uni. Played overseas. I never understood the NHL rules because CC was all over the map. If I played in the show, I would have shrugged my shoulders after suspensions and simply played on. He's the one guy I think has damaged the game the most with his inability to lead during a period when the game has evolved so much.

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#28 Colin Campbell
June 21 2011, 08:25PM
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Colin Campbell is a vicious and vindictive human being. He is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the NHL. A pox on his house, may he know nothing but misery the rest of his days.

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#29 Derzie
June 21 2011, 08:54PM
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Hey it's no mystery that the NHL brass are hopelessly inept. They succeed in spite of themselves. With Shanahan coming in, nothing has changed. The brass are still inept and they will expect Shanahan to be just as inconsistent as his predecessor. The head of the snake is still intact and that head is about 4' 11" off the ground and gets booed at every event he attends.

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