You may remember Patrick Burke from such hit shows as “Raffi Torres is not going to play hockey for a while” and “Sorry everyone, we couldn’t find reason to suspend Zac Rinaldo, maybe next time.”
Burke is a director in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Formed in 2011, with the mandate of administering supplemental discipline, the DOPS was originally headed by Brendan Shanahan. It’s now led by Stephane Quintal. Another familiar name to hockey fans, Chris Pronger, was hired as a director in 2014.
The following is a transcript of an email conversation I had this week with Burke. I wanted to know about the frustrations of the position, and what it was like to make decisions that can’t possibly please everyone.
To get things started, I asked about a recent DOPS decision that did not please me.
JB: It’s an old blogger adage that you lead with a guy getting speared in the groin. Brandon Prust was only fined $5,000 for what he did to Brad Marchand. He called it the best money he’s ever spent. Is the DOPS bound by the general managers’ belief that plays like that aren’t worthy of a suspension? I just don’t think it’s a very good look for the league when Prust is left joking about spearing a guy in the groin, even though Marchand wasn’t hurt, and even though it was, you know…Brad Marchand.
PB: At the end of the day, our department has the final say over individual decisions regarding supplemental discipline. That said, we regularly look to the GMs for guidance on what is happening in the game. I think when our department begins noticing trends, it’s important for us to research what is happening, document what we are seeing, then presenting this information to the GMs to ask how big of an issue this trend is for our league. How many stick fouls are we seeing? How severe are they? How often are players getting injured on these plays, and how severely? The GMs provide us with their feedback and we go from there. I suspect that recent incidents may have increased the desire of the hockey world to see stick fouls punished more severely. If that’s the case, we certainly have no hesitation to increase the punishment going forward.
JB: Marchand wasn’t seriously hurt on the play, but one player who was injured earlier this season was Sean Couturier, on a hit by Zac Rinaldo. In the video explaining why Rinaldo wasn’t suspended, you noted that you supported the referee’s decision to give Rinaldo a charging major, but then you ruled that the hit was not worthy of a suspension. I think this confused a lot of fans. If Rinaldo broke the rules and Couturier was injured, how was there no supplemental discipline?
PB: Well, I’ll preface this by saying our department doesn’t oversee officiating. Stephen Walkom does an unreal job at that. And our officials have the single hardest job in sports, and are unequivocally the best in the world. I am in awe of what they’re able to do on a nightly basis.
Our department is different. We have replay. We have slow motion. We have ten angles. We have hours, often days, to make our decisions. Referees have to make them in a fraction of a second. We are in an office in New York. They are on the ice with the players in that moment. They’re in charge of policing that particular game in that moment. We don’t know what’s being said on the ice. We don’t know if a player has been warned ten times to calm down. We don’t know if the referee was concerned about a game getting out of hand.
So, when we make a video that seemingly contradicts one of their decisions, it is important to us as a department to make it clear that we support our officials unequivocally. I don’t think there’s anything logically inconsistent in essentially stating, “We completely support our official making this call in that moment. That said, it’s now 48 hours later. I have zoomed in from three different angles and watched the hit 50 times in slow motion. With the benefit of added technology, we can determine that a suspension is not appropriate on this play.”
JB: Right, so “support” doesn’t ultimately mean “agree with.” While I still think that has the potential to cause confusion, I get where you’re coming from. And I agree, refs have a tough job. We all rip players for things like turning pucks over at the blue line, but then we expect officials to be perfect.
With that in mind, I want to let you vent a bit now. Your department receives a ton of criticism. That’s to be expected, but what type of criticism bothers you the most? (And you can’t say that none of it bothers you because you’re a Burke and that’s not how a Burke rolls.)
PB: I wrote about five drafts to this response and each time a little shoulder angel of John Dellapina (the NHL’s senior director of public relations) appeared and went, “You can’t say that. Or that. Definitely not that.”
Lazy criticism bothers me. That’s it. I don’t mind when people disagree with us — hell, we regularly disagree internally. We have screaming arguments about whether something is worthy of two games or three. So, “Wow, I didn’t think that was suspension-worthy” or “They only fined him, but I think it was worth one game” isn’t criticism that bothers me at all. There was probably someone in our ten-person department who felt the same way.
But, if you are a media member covering a team on a regular basis, you have a duty to know what you’re talking about. Unfortunately, there’s a good-sized contingent of media right now that has no interest in being informed or accurate. It’s about being the most retweeted, the snarkiest, having the hottest take on a play. It’s very easy to stoke fan emotion and get the outrage going.
I think good media members have an understanding of NHL rules and how they’re applied. Even when they disagree with our decisions they’re able to articulate the thought process, analyze the play intelligently, and then disagree.
Then there’s the group that sees a hit and rushes to tweet, “CLEAR ELBOW BY JOHN DOE BET DOPS SCREWS THIS ONE UP TOO.” They yell about our incompetence as they incorrectly apply an NHL rule; they’re calling us lazy as we’re already in the process of reviewing ten plays; they’re calling us biased while painting their player as a kindhearted superstar who loves to adopt puppies and the opponent as a brutal monster with no place in the game. It’s constant, it’s hypocritical, and it’s tiring. You’re entitled to your own opinions. You aren’t entitled to your own facts.
We are, by FAR, the most accessible and open of all the disciplinary groups in sports. On a daily basis we speak to media members to clarify, explain, teach, or discuss plays, rules, and decisions. Not just the Bob McKenzies and Elliotte Friedmans of the world either. We regularly speak with local beat reporters. We invite media to come tour our room and see us in action. We provide videos explaining our decisions and our controversial non-decisions. We even have educational videos on our website that explain our standards for hits. Everyone in hockey has the direct email to NHL PR, and most media people have a direct line to either myself, Stephane Quintal, Damian Echevarrieta, or Chris Pronger.
Damian and I spend half our night texting with people to keep them informed. Hell, I’ll regularly text with local bloggers just to give them clarification on something they may not understand. I think we’ve removed every excuse the media has for not being informed, and yet there’s still a significant portion of them remaining willfully ignorant out of laziness or lack of professionalism.
So, disagree with our decisions all you like. Dislike us on a personal level (Prongs and I are used to that). But if you’re calling yourself media, don’t act like a drunken fan.
JB: Confirmed: You’re a Burke. I look forward to seeing the evolution of your hair.
Speaking of your father — and I’ve wondered about this before — in today’s NHL, how many games would Pavel Bure get for his elbow on Shane Churla? Your father was in charge of discipline when that occurred during the 1994 playoffs. He didn’t suspend Bure. He only fined him $500.
PB: I’d have to go back and review the factors surrounding it to give an exact game number. I seem to recall they had an ongoing battle during the series itself. That could elevate it, as could injury or history. But yeah, based on my recollection of the play, it’s a fairly easy suspension in the modern DOPS era. Not to oversimplify it, but you can’t do that.
By the way, I was only 11 in 1994, so $500 actually seemed like an absurdly punitive punishment to me at the time.
JB: I grew up a Canucks fan, so I thought a $500 fine was perfectly appropriate. The Aaron Rome suspension, on the other hand….but that was right before the DOPS was formed, so we won’t go there.
PB: You answer one of my questions now. If you could change one thing about how the DOPS operates, what would it be?
JB: Hmmm. OK, as a media guy, it might be helpful to have some sort of checklist that outlines all the criteria that need to be met for a play to be worthy of a suspension. Just something we can reference whenever there’s a close call. Kinda like Sean McIndoe’s flowchart, which I’ve always found to be quite helpful, though I’m not sure it’s officially endorsed by the league.
PB: I think the difficult part of doing that is that it’s so difficult to account for gray-area elements of a play — like, say, level of force — in a description. That’s why we’ve favored videos showing multiple examples rather than a strict flowchart.
Intent is just such a gray area. There’s a women’s hockey play under review right now where a player shoved another into an open door. Did she intend to shove her? Clearly. Did she intend to shove her into an open gate? Probably not. And even if she did, it’d be tough to prove it. How does that fit into a flowchart?
The truth is we see thousands of plays and none of them are identical. Having a strict flowchart has been discussed, but it simply doesn’t work. How do you flowchart “reckless” or “intentional” in a way where it applies to every play?
JB: Sure, sure. You just don’t want to paint yourself into any corners. That way you can totally screw over [reader’s favorite team] whenever you feel like it. Like, say, after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. In the year 2011. For example.
PB: In just over two years with the NHL, I have been personally accused of actively hating every club in the league. And while some of the justifications for my supposed hatred are absolutely hilarious (that would actually be a fun list to compile), I would like to assure all six people still reading this that the Department of Player Safety has no strong feelings about the team you cheer for. We do our best to be transparent and consistent, and we work our asses off to get it right. We know we won’t ever be popular in the media, but…well, Burkes get used to that at a young age.