When can a coach be held ‘responsible’ for the actions of his players?

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When Flames head coach Bob Hartley was fined $25,000 by the NHL in the wake of Saturday’s line brawl in Vancouver, the league ruled that the fine was “issued in accordance with By-Law 17.3 (a) for conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the League.”

Said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations: “We are holding Mr. Hartley responsible for the actions of Flames right wing Kevin Westgarth, who took the game’s opening faceoff and attempted to instigate a premeditated fight with an unwilling opponent — the Canucks’ Kevin Bieksa.”

Now, you’ll note that the league never outright accused Hartley of telling Westgarth to start the fight, though at least one report suggested that was the case.  This is important, because after the game Hartley pleaded total innocence, saying he had “zero intentions” when he started Westgarth, along with another noted tough guy, Brian McGrattan.

But the NHL still held Hartley responsible for what Westgarth did. And even though Calgary’s general manager, Brian Burke, was “perplexed” by that decision, here’s the thing — what were the Flames going to do about it?

Unlike suspended players who have a defined appeals process, as laid out in the CBA that their union negotiated with the league, an appeal for a suspended coach would have to go straight to the full Board of Governors, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The maximum fine under By-Law 17.3 (a) is $1 million, and there are no limitations on the length or duration of the suspension.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many of Ron Rolston’s counterparts around the league were reportedly miffed when the former Sabres bench boss was fined for “player selection” after the John Scott-Phil Kessel incident in the preseason.

“So what am I supposed to do now?” one anonymous coach asked the QMI Agency. “Do I call the ref over and call timeout so I can call Colie Campbell and ask him who I can put on the ice?”

And as on-ice violence continues to be a hot-button issue, with many suggesting that fining coaches and clubs more aggressively may be an effective way to cut down on those incidents (forfeiting their own money is one thing for players; costing their coaches a big chunk of change is another much more uncomfortable one), it begs the question, which PHT asked Daly in an email: “Could this method of punishment be more widely applied in the future — i.e., when is a coach NOT responsible for the actions of his player?”

Daly replied that it was a “tough question” to answer.

“I would say that there are certain things that happen on the ice that we will automatically ascribe a certain level of responsibility to the coach, and there are other things that happen, where we don’t use that presumption,” he wrote. “[In Hartley’s case], the totality of the circumstances indicated to us that the Coach in this case had to be held accountable for what went on on the ice.”

If you’re a coach, what’s your level of comfort with that explanation? In the future, are you going to think twice about sending out your enforcer types? Remember, there’s a precedent now. You may be held responsible for their actions.

And where’s the line? Could it eventually be pushed out to include responsibility for a player, enforcer or not, with a motive for revenge who gets sent out over the boards? The argument could easily be made that the coach bears responsibility if revenge is taken.