Adrian the Canadian compares the NFL and NHL

Fresh off his wildly popular analysis of the Lee Evans non-catch on Sunday, Adrian the Canadian gives us an interesting comparison of the NFL’s and NHL’s approaches to violence:

It’s no secret that the NFL is the most popular sports league in North America. It’s also no secret that for those of you south of the 49th parallel the NHL sits somewhere between UFC and NASCAR on the sports hierarchy. This strikes many people up north as somewhat of a mystery – professional hockey is a fast, physical, skilled and unpredictable game and yet remains relatively unpopular in the US. Many of my countrymen wonder why.

One reason could be that the leagues have taken very different approaches when it comes to protecting their most valuable assets. In the NFL, its quarterbacks are its biggest stars and most valuable commodity.  Ownership has been quick to recognize that the more passing there is in the game, the more successful the league is. Therefore, the NFL has aggressively modified and enforced Article 13 in its rulebook to protect the quarterback when he is most vulnerable: the moment after he has released the pass. While some players and commentators have opposed this shift — see Rod Woodson’s response to the “Brady Rule” — they have had little clout in this debate.

The NHL has taken a different approach. The NHL’s most valuable assets are its skill players — Sydney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Claude Giroux, Jeff Skinner, and others. But, while the NFL rule book makes Tom Brady harder to tackle than a greased hog, the NHL’s rules offer its elite players scant protection. Indeed, many of its top players, including three of the four mentioned above, have missed significant time due to concussions. Sydney Crosby, perhaps the greatest hockey player many of us will ever see play, may never play again. Part of this is due to the NHL’s failure to punish something called “finishing the check.” This happens when an offensive player passes the puck, leaving himself vulnerable in much the same way a quarterback who has just released the pass is vulnerable, and the defensive player continues his moment and hits the offensive player. The Score, a Canadian sports network, has a nice critique of the practice. Finishing the check doesn’t just result in injuries but a tighter, more physical, less offensive game.

The practice of finishing the check stems from two interesting parts of the NHL rule book. First, as The Score article suggests, the definition of “possession of the puck” includes the player who last touched the puck. Therefore, he is not “interfered” with if he is checked immediately after passing. Perhaps even more interesting is the penalty for “boarding,” the act of checking a defenseless player into the boards. Here is the whole penalty:

41.1 Boarding – A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.

There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the Referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize the contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule.

The NHL in this rule asks referees to perform what lawyers call a “balancing test,” asking them to assess a variety of factors including whether the hit was violent, whether the hit was unavoidable (the NFL does this too, but in a more specific way) and whether the offensive player was partially at fault (!). Consider that for a moment: skilled offensive players, in their most vulnerable state, may sometimes be at fault when they are hit late! No wonder scoring is down and big, lumbering goons jam up the ice. While the NFL places the onus of avoiding the illegal hit solely on the defensive player, the NHL splits the burden. We know that the NHL does not have to do this. Rules are made by leagues and players have to follow those rules whether they like it or not (as we’ve seen, many players and coaches don’t like the NFL rules protecting the quarterback). So why would the league do something like this?

Let’s step back and think about traffic. Yes, traffic. Imagine you’re coming up to a busy traffic circle, what do you do? You sit and wait for a gap in traffic because the cars already in the circle have the right of way, right? But what if you’re in Paris, driving up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe? Well, the traffic coming into the circle has the right of way! Insane right? The French system slows traffic and the whole point of our traffic laws is to make traffic flow smoothly! If we go back even further, the right of way used to go to those who had a higher social rank. Instead of trying to facilitate the movement of people through the city, the purpose of traffic rules was to quickly get the aristocracy to their destination and, just maybe, to reinforce their privileged place in society.

So, when evaluating rules we have to think about what the purposes of the rules are. In the case above, if we think about the French system where oncoming traffic has to stop for every minor duke, in terms of helping traffic flow, we’re going to grade it poorly. But the system is, strangely, a success based on the idea that the point of traffic is to make minor dukes happy. When we think about why the NFL protects its vulnerable players and the NHL doesn’t, we should keep this example in mind and ask: what is the purpose of the rules the league makes?

It seems to me that there are two possible purposes for these rules. The first, the view the NFL takes, is “teleological” – football has a purpose and that purpose is based on some end. For the NFL, that end is selling tickets and television contracts and the means to that end is the entertainment of football fans. Thus, the NFL doesn’t concern itself much with the “integrity” of football; it is concerned with the things that make the game more entertaining and marketable. Football is simply the way the NFL makes money, not the end in and of itself.

The second view believes that there is a “natural” or “deontological” way sports like hockey and football should work. People who ascribe to this view think that each game has some intrinsic quality that rules should encourage. They tend to view sports as a blast furnace designed for players to test their metal and are unconcerned with the ultimate ends that result from these rules — fans and revenues be damned! Commentators, such as the world’s angriest dandy Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, many in the NHL’s front office, and even the article I linked above are concerned about preserving the NHL’s physicality as it is, even though it stifles fast, skilled play. When people suggest otherwise and argue that the NHL should develop a product that fans want to watch, they are called “namby-pambies” and “soccer moms.”

In settling who is right, we should think about fans as the lowly French proletariat, trying to get to the boulangerie before closing, held up in traffic because the duke wants to go for an afternoon carriage ride. The system may function well for the duke, much like the NHL’s system functions for the members of the hockey establishment that believe that the game should exist so that hard men can smash into each other on skates. The NFL disagrees with this viewpoint — it sees no utility in a game that no one wants to watch. So consider this my plea to the NHL: don’t let your game whither because some think that encouraging the type of play that fans want to watch is “baby proofing” the league. It’s not. It’s helping a potentially great game become a great game. And it will make most of us watch a heck of a lot more hockey.

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9 responses to “Adrian the Canadian compares the NFL and NHL

  1. While I agree with almost everything you write here, I wouldn’t make a distinction between the NHL’s stars and inferior players when it comes to protecting them.
    In the NFL a quarterback has a significantly different role from a Guard or Center, so some of the rule changes apply only to Brady, Brees and Co.
    In the NHL, however, any player is bound to make a pass at some point in the game – so they’re all vulnerable. In fact, Chris Pronger is one of those guys who likes to hit more than he is being hit, and yet he is on the list of players sitting out right now because of a concussion.
    Penalizing specific checks would certainly help making the game more attractive, but it would first and foremost keep the NHL players healthier – and I mean every NHL player!
    On the same note, there are various helmet and uniform constructions/designs that could protect players more effectively, yet for some reason the league, the teams and even the players don’t want them…

  2. Thanks for the comment – I agree that protecting every player should be the focus. From a marketing perspective, what matters is the stars (the marketing side was Adrian’s focus here, rather than the human side of the concussion issue), but I think most reasonable people would agree that the NHL should follow Adrian’s suggestion for safety reasons alone. Maybe they will listen to the $$$$ argument instead of the health one!

  3. The NFL can afford to be “teleological” while the NHL is “deontological” because hockey is much closer to a kind of natural sport — that is, a sport that can be played with two rules only: the rule that dictates how to score, and the rule that defines how you compete.

    Think about it this way — strip away all the rules except the two most basic ones from hockey and football.

    A game of “natural” hockey, in which the only rules are that you score when the puck enters the net, and you can’t use your hands to touch the puck, still looks a lot like a game of modern hockey. The situation is similar for soccer and basketball. (In hockey, the rare sport in which players actively self-police for perceived fouls , you’re very close to a natural sport indeed.)

    A game of “natural” football, on the other hand, doesn’t really exist, or at least looks dissimilar enough to modern football that it’s much closer to a different sport entirely (guess which one I’m picturing). If pressed hard enough to come up with rules to “natural” football, it would look something like this: 1: you score when you enter the end zone, and 2: you lose possession when you’re tackled enough times.

    Unfortunately, you need more rules, because right now you have unlimited forward passing, and you’re therefore playing a game that looks like some kind of weird, chaotic, full-contact European handball. So you limit the number of forward passes to one per tackle situation, or “down.” But you can’t stop there either. You need an arbitrary distance to travel to earn a “first down” because if you don’t, the game will consist entirely of fourth-down turnovers and failed Hail Marys. But you can’t stop there either — you need a million other rules defining the minutiae of what constitutes a pass, catch, fumble, tackle, and many, many other considerations.

    Put another way, football is like the Weasley house in Harry Potter. Every time you build another story onto the house, you need more magic to hold the whole thing together. The house may be functional, but from an outside perspective, it looks ridiculously complicated.

    So it’s no surprise that the NFL can and does change its rules to promote arbitrary factors like the fans’ enjoyment. Football is already a hodgepodge of rules — not a natural sport so much as an evolved sport — and one more little change won’t really make a substantial difference. It’s harder for the NHL to institute such changes, because it governs a sport that already has a master: logic.

  4. @Luke: Good observation. Even the players seem to want to keep the game as it is. For instance, I know many non-hockey fans who say they kinda like the sport but hate the fighting, and if you think about it it is indeed kinda dumb, brutal and unnecessary. But nobody would seriously dare suggesting to take fighting out of the NHL. It has a lot of tradition, and in the hockey world that’s super important. I like it myself (cherishing tradition, not necessarily fighting).

  5. From a cold, hard financial perspective, though, preserving hockey’s integrity or naturalness is somewhat like preserving left wing or conservative purity in a presidential election. It’s not the best choice – candidates invariably move to the middle because it gets them more votes (fans), and their diehard supporters would never dare change allegiance to the other side. Also, I’m not sure the self-policing in hockey is working, in terms of these specific plays. To me, fighting seems to be more about getting your team going these days or making a general statement of physical dominance than it is a reaction to a specific play.

    Luke, I agree with you in general that hockey is more natural, but it still has many, many rules (tripping, goaltender interference, icing, offside, faceoffs, many rules about checking, etc.). How would a rule about late hits differ from these?

  6. @ Tyler, right, every sport has a long list of rules, especially governing petty fouls. But my Trivial Pursuit set still says that football has more rules than any other sport. (True! But don’t ask me to find the card that said that.) My point is this: the brass in the NFL (and the leagues that preceded it) have been making up the rules of the game as they go for literally its entire existence. It’s hardly a stretch for them to add in a Brady-brain bylaw. In hockey, there’s less of a precedent for this sort of thing, and I think that stems from the logical structure of the sport itself.

    Also, from the perspective of the intent of the people instating rules in hockey, until now, the only laws that parallel a special rule for “skill” players are the rules that specifically pertain to goaltenders. Other than goalies, in hockey, every position is created equal in the eyes of the law. Granted, the new rule would apply to everyone on the ice, but realistically, the law exists to protect a certain class of forwards. Other than goalies, special rules for certain players is uncharted territory in hockey.

  7. Luke, excellent point. Hockey in its “natural” state still requires that we set a default allocation of rights between the participant. Checking is an excellent example of this – when it’s fair game to check is a conscious decision made by the rules committee and, in fact, checking is a wholly unnecessary aspect of the game. Women’s hockey, which is still recognizably hockey and maintains the integrity of the “natural” rules, prohibits body checking. So while I think it’s good that hockey hews close to it’s absolute minimum baseline set of rules, it’s also important that we recognize the arbitrariness of the default rights and responsibilities we attach to players when adding a legal “superstructure” on top of those basic rules. The decision to make the offensive player potentially partially responsible for the illegal acts of another player is an arbitrary one and one that can, and should, be remedied without compromising hockey in its “deontological” sense.

  8. Another Canadian

    Another important point to consider is the incidence of checking from behind. The NHL has a rule that deals with this but a) the penalty is almost never called (it has to be a blatant check and usually result in injury) and b) it frequently is only punished with a minor penalty (2 minutes),

    Contrast this to minor hockey, where for years leagues have punished any form of check from behind with game major penalties (5 minutes) and game misconducts. This rule would be extended to cover hits that were even half from behind.

    Also speaking of Don Cherry (the world’s angriest Dandy, I love it), he has been of the opinion that the problem with hockey injuries is that there is less fighting and not more. The thought process being that since the advent of the instigator rule (a 2 minute minor and possible game misconduct that can be applied for instigating a fight) team’s enforcers are reluctant to punish their opponents for thuggish behaviour because it costs their teams severely. The commonly used example is how no one would ever hit Wayne Gretzky for fear of retribution by Dave Semenko in the Oilers days or Marty McSorely in the Kings days.

  9. Great points – its seems like the NHL is caught halfway with both checks from behind and the instigator rule. The check from behind rule isn’t enforced and the instigator rule (certainly going against the naturalness of the game) probably makes things worse, not better, as you say.

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