December 03, 2007

A Soapbox Moment: Let’s Talk About Transparency in Hockey

For those of you the National Capital Region, you have probably heard more than you care to on the subject in the political space. But the idea has merit – and I wonder if we will ever see transparency in hockey.

First, what the heck am I talking about? While there are many technical definitions for transparency, I would like to discuss it in the context of what decisions are made and how they are made. The theory being that the more open these decisions are, the more accountable the decision makers can be/have to be to those affected by the decisions. Additionally, those who might be affected by the decisions know the rules of engagement and can govern themselves accordingly.

Openness changes behaviors.

So what the heck has that to do with hockey you might ask? Here are my beefs:

First and foremost is a simple online posting of the OHL Rule Book. The NHL makes its rules and other information readily available. This allows fans to actually read the rules and the League’s expectation for the rules. One can argue that the league is still quite a distance from consistent enforcement of said rules, but the rules are still out there to allow an informed discussion to take place. Try to find the OHL Rule Book anywhere online. Can’t be done – not by me anyway. I sent Dave Branch an email on September 30, 2007 asking where I might find an online version of the rules. Didn’t even get a reply. How many forum or other discussions have you seen / been part of where participants are all fired up over something only to find out that no one really knows the underlying rules for a given situation, much less the expectation for enforcement (odd that hockey seems to need to have rules about enforcing the rules – why not just call them guidelines – but that’s for another day). You want informed fans? Make the rules available for starters.

My second beef is with both the NHL and the OHL. How about a published framework for making decisions regarding suspensions? Not a hard and inflexible set of rules, but rather an underlying structure to frame decisions. It doesn’t take away judgment but puts some realistic borders on the decisions that all can see and understand. The framework could present the key criteria that go into a decision. Criteria that could, for example, include a player’s record for previous attention by the league (range A. for no previous suspensions, range B for the second suspension, range C for a real repeat offender), the severity of the result (i.e. damage to another player, versus so-called damage to the reputation of the league), the record of the team for previous attention to the league, whether it is an on-ice or off-ice event, the nature of the event (some events could be more or less heinous), etc. By putting this framework out in the open, everyone will have an idea of what earns 2-games, 5-games, or 20-game suspensions. This framework could be negotiated with the NHLPA (for the NHL) and supported by the governors. In the OHL context, it could be discussed and ratified by the owners.

Not only does it hold the decision makers to account for more consistency, it also relieves them of some of the grief they now encounter (i.e. accusations of preferential treatment of so-called star players who commit the same infractions as the lesser lights).

Imagine if Toronto had known that the league was likely to throw somewhere in the range of 20 games at Bell for admitting guilt to his charges in San Jose. Perhaps they would have negotiated that trade a bit differently. Sure Bell was a toss-in to get him off the Sharks roster and out of their hair, but perhaps Toronto might not have given their first round pick for taking this extended burden. Because they had no idea what to expect, I think to some degree they were blindsided by the league. Transparency in the process would have allowed them to make a more informed decision (no – I don’t want to get into a discussion about the overall competency of JFJ – it’s just an example).

My final transparency beef has to do with the selection and management of on-ice officials. Not the individuals themselves, but the processes. Just how does one become an NHL/OHL official and what is the process for measuring and managing performance? I do not want a public lynching for every questionable call, but I would like some clarity on just how performance is evaluated and how corrective action (note I didn’t say punitive action) is taken. If punitive action is warranted, it should be according to some framework that is known to the officials, the teams and the fans. Again, by putting the processes out there in the open, it can assure everyone that someone is paying attention and taking appropriate action.

These are radical ideas in a time where many officials still want to run their leagues like personal fiefdoms that we blindly accept. That time is past; it’s time to put more of the decision making processes into the open.


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