A balanced score can lead to a balanced tension and compete within a hockey game, but when the game is lost for one team, we see it boil over into message-sending. Look at the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where blowout games seemingly lead to more outside-the-rules violence and suspensions. It’s not like over-the-line actions haven’t happened before in the NHL.
What can we learn by looking back at the state of the game when suspended plays have occurred?
Since 2009-10, there have been 427 total on-ice suspensions handed out by the NHL — nothing with personal conduct or performance-enhancing drugs.
Suspension length is subjective to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and while the department is often criticized for inconsistency, overall suspension length has trended downwards.
For example, since Tom Wilson’s October 2018 suspension of 14 regular-season games and six preseason games, there has been no on-ice suspension greater than eight games. Focusing on the 122 on-ice suspensions that occurred since the start of the 2018-19 season, the frustration of losing bubbles to the surface when the score is considered.
Suspension-worthy plays are almost twice as likely when you are down.
Roughly half of the total suspensions between 2018-19 and 2022-23 occurred when the offending player’s team was losing, and just over half of those bonehead plays happened in the third period.
While losing and losing late seemed to open the door on suspendable violence, there were a whole swath of suspended plays that occurred during the game’s first two periods, reminding us that hockey is liable to cross the line of acceptable violence at any point.
Losing by a wide margin can be humiliating, but looking at game-score deficits when the suspended plays occurred, there was no correlation between how much a suspended player was losing and how long they were suspended.
Any trend between embarrassment and poor decision-making is muddled by the sheer number of one- and two-goal games compared to three-goal or greater deficits. A true pattern of sore-losing arises by breaking down suspensions by the type of infraction.
What is quite clear is that when NHL players go down, they go down swinging. Stick infractions (slashing, cross-checking, spearing, high-sticking) that led to suspensions occurred 76% of the time while the suspended player was losing.
Despite it being illegal to play the puck with a stick broken over someone’s lumbar, players continually respond to losing by using their sticks for violence. It’s a clear net-loss if you don’t put the puck in the net and cannot play the next game. This is the balance of respect that comes with all hockey: you are handed a weapon and told you can only swing it at the small rubber disk bouncing between the sizable players.
Can you respect the rules and others at the rink?
In-play body contact calls (head contact, kneeing, clipping, elbowing, slew-footing, boarding, charging) are a major reason for the NHL’s Player Safety Department, and the period-by-period breakdown of in-play body contact suspensions showcases what makes the sport of hockey so complex.
There is not a specific period or game situation that brings out in-game body contact.
Professional hockey players on average are over six feet tall, skate nearly 20 miles per hour, and are restricted by the boards from running out of play to avoid contact, such as in football. Body contact, even when both parties are prepared, can be dangerous simply due to the mass and speed at play.
Note this year’s playoffs, which saw many tripping calls and even a Marcus Foligno suspension due to partial contact or clacking legs. The sheer speed that players can approach and avoid each other, is liable for issue at any point in the game. This makes in-play contact — and thus suspensions for unsafe contact — superfluous throughout the game. It’s crunch time all the time, which reiterates the responsibility of the hitter and the hittee to be as safe as possible.
When the team is down, violence becomes targeted during play with interference, and between the whistles with roughing. These sorts of plays are all too common, where the inherent violent nature of in-play hockey contact becomes an excuse to submit others to punches and hitting even when vulnerable.
Suspended players may be seeking a violent spark or retaliatory message-sending, but the league is wise to crack down on the targeting of vulnerable players.
The remaining zero-tolerance offenses have so few suspensions that it is hard to draw any conclusion except for that it is good that there are so few. Kicking and head-butting are clearly outside of acceptable violence in hockey, and have never had acceptance within the league.
Along with other offenses that are universally sanctioned, such as biting and spitting, zero-tolerance protects players who do not want to fight and the authority of officials. The difficulty is that while these actions are clearly outside the rules, policing the in-play violence can be hugely subjective.
Even if hitting were removed, hockey’s walled ice surface and breakneck speed ingrains violent contact within the sport. While this blurs the lines for what level of violence is no longer acceptable, the NHL has done a great deal to manage that violence, and the excess, through suspensions, maintaining relative safety for the players.
The NHL’s goal for increasing parity ideally allows the game to progress to a more controlled level of violence, where games stay closer, enabling players to prioritize scoring over message-sending.
This is now in competition with league scoring trending upwards and a 2023 Playoffs with teams running up the scoreboard. It will be interesting to see how the frustrated individuals on the wrong end of blowouts handle their composure to maintain the peace into the future.