TORONTO—After performing an in-depth 15-year study of professional hockey penalties, penalization practices, and the behavior of penalized players, independent hockey-law reform group JustIce concluded this week that the NHL's use of the penalty box does "absolutely nothing whatsoever" in the long term to deter players from committing violations.
"The so-called penalty box does nothing to discourage rule-breaking, and less than nothing to help reform players," said JustIce press liaison Craig MacKenzie, who noted that after individuals serve their time, they are routinely sent without further evaluation directly back into the environment they came from, where they inevitably wind up confronting the same skaters they originally victimized. "In fact, we found that for some players, being sent to the 'sin bin' is seen as anything from a minor inconvenience to a badge of honor to a career necessity."
JustIce claimed to have found several constants in its study of NHL statistics from the 1995 season to the present, all of them pointing to the modern penalty box—with its comfortable seating, ample water-bottle availability, and unmatched view of the exciting on-ice action—as an ineffective long-term deterrent against rule-breaking. According to the report, an astonishing 100 percent of players have spent time incarcerated for rule violations during their careers.
Even more shocking, according to the report, is the 100 percent rate of recidivism.
"When a player serves time for cross-checking, a weapons-based form of assault, it should serve as a lesson," the report read in part. "However, a quick search through the records found that players who receive a sentence of 2 to 5 minutes for cross-checking inevitably commit another cross-check, and that in subsequent games almost all of them go on to commit infractions such as clipping, boarding, charging, or—worst of all—slashing."
JustIce has called for several sweeping reforms to the penalty-box system, including longer minimum sentences, though with time off for good behavior such as not squirting fans with water bottles or damaging the facilities with the stick or skates; anger management therapy for those demonstrating repeated aggressive tendencies; and career counseling to help notorious instigators, fighters, and enforcers become productive members of the passing and checking community.
The NHL has not responded at length to the findings, saying that the specific details of rule enforcement are an internal matter, and that the traditional practice of making a team play with one fewer man on the ice was punishment enough. However, NHL vice president of hockey development and head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan did issue a brief statement during a press conference Wednesday.
"The National Hockey League takes discipline very seriously," Shanahan said. "However, it is not the job of the penalization system to make violators into better people, a task for which we believe the coach, family, and church are best suited. We are only attempting to protect law-abiding players, ensure a fair and competitive atmosphere, and provide an entertaining experience for our fans, and we think the use of the modern, safe, and clean penalty box helps us meet those goals."
MacKenzie described the NHL's position as "a farce."
"I couldn't believe what I was hearing until I realized this was coming from the notorious Shanahan, a man who served almost 2,500 penalty minutes during his playing career," Mackenzie said. "What kind of a message is the NHL sending? Get locked up enough and you, too, can be put in charge of discipline? Obviously, something is deeply wrong here."
"Furthermore, many of Shanahan's penalties were for actually fighting with another player on the ice. And for that—for actually striking another human being with his fists—he would serve about five minutes. This is by no means an adequate sentence for premeditated physical violence during a sporting contest. In fact, it's barely longer than the penalty for hooking, which, though not a victimless crime as some say, is still relatively innocuous."
Perhaps worst of all, MacKenzie said, is that there appears to be little or no stigma attached to the penalty box by either fans or players.
"It's getting to the point where fans actually cheer for players when they are sent off the ice," MacKenzie said. "Sadly, it seems as though a trip to the penalty box is now regarded as just a normal part of hockey."