Inside the NHL Department of Player Safety

At 7:30 p.m. ET, the New York City offices of the NHL are eerily quiet. Following quickly behind John Dellapina, NHL group vice president of communications, I pass empty offices and cubicles as he leads me to a room in a non-descript hallway I nearly walk right past.

Next to the door is a small plaque: “Player Safety Room.”

Having no idea what to expect, the door opens and I’m greeted by the ambient light of computer screens and television monitors. Multiple heads pop up from behind the monitors to greet us.

While I’d like to think they’re happy to see me, I think they’re happier that I showed up so they can dig into the free pizza in the room, sprung for by the NHL on account of my being there. Any other night, the guys are on their own for food.

Dellapina makes the introductions and hands me off to my handler for the night, Damian Echevarrieta, vice president of Player Safety and Hockey Operations. Stephane Quintal, the senior vice president of Player Safety, was not in the office to take in the games. Same thing for Patrick Burke, director of Player Safety, who was taking advantage of rare personal time off. As for Chris Pronger, the department’s other director, takes in the games from his home in St. Louis.

After we all got settled in with our food, it was time for hockey!

BRING ON THE BLOOD!

… or not so much.

It could not have been a slower night. Everyone in every game we watched was on the edge of angelic, in the hockey sense.

While this is great for those in Player Safety, it makes for a boring article.

Instead of giving a blow-by-blow – or lack thereof – picture of night, let’s drop a little knowledge.

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ORIGIN STORY

And on the first day of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, NHL Commissioner Gary B. Bettman created the Department of Player Safety.

“I am creating effective after this season a new Department of Player Safety which will be headed by Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, Brendan Shanahan. In this revised role, Brendan will be responsible for developing rules related to better protecting our players without changing the fundamental nature of our game, dealing with equipment and safety issues related to equipment, and pursuant to a request made by Colin Campbell, Brendan will administer commissioner supplemental discipline.”

And thus the Department of Player Safety (DoPS, for short) was born.

Shanahan tapped former players Stephane Quintal and Rob Blake to help him run the department, along with Echevarrieta, who joined the NHL in 1999 after working into hockey ops for the New York Rangers. Since then, “D,” as he’s known to his colleagues, has taken part in over 650 disciplinary hearings as a part of hockey ops under Colin Campbell, and Player Safety under Shanny and now Quintal.

The quiet, reserved Echevarrieta, and his unmistakable Brooklynite accent, is credited with much of the grunt work put in to form the department as we know it.

After three seasons in the department, Blake was hired as assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Kings in June 2013, and replaced by Brian Leetch. The former NHL’er stayed in Player Safety for only one season.

At the same time Leetch was hired, Shanahan also opted to bring in Patrick Burke, fresh off of his graduation from law school. Burke, the son of former NHL director of hockey operations and rebuker of tied-ties Brian Burke, served as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers for seven years. As a law student, Burke interned for the New England Patriots in their legal department. At the time of his hiring, many were already familiar with Burke as a co-founder of the You Can Play project.

Patrick didn’t fit the mold of others in the department. For one, he was significantly younger than his counterparts; turning 30 a few months prior to his hiring. Second, he didn’t ‘play the game,’ at least not in the NHL, like those in leadership positions in the department. He acted as a public face to bridge the gap between the social media wise public and the ever-changing landscape of the league as a whole. And as Burkes tend to do, met the (at times) angry mob armed with whoopee cushions and biting sarcasm.

Shanahan left in April 2014 to run the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Quintal took over in the interim. The job change for Quintal was made permanent in September 2014. Turning the torch over to Quintal appeared to be strategic, as was the hiring of Shanahan in the beginning.

It was felt that the players themselves would take seriously the commands of a department headed by a former player, especially one that toed the line the way Shanny did. Quintal, a 16-year veteran of the NHL, didn’t have the same success on the ice as Shanahan, but he spent a good deal of time in the penalty box. Over 1,037 career games with six different NHL teams, the defenseman amassed 1,320 penalty minutes.

I later came to understand that Quintal plays the most important role of anyone when it comes to handing out justice in the NHL.

The last player added to the current leadership group of DoPS is the newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer and current member of the Arizona Coyotes, Chris Pronger. The defenseman was an obvious choice for replacing Leetch in 2014. Pronger was suspended nine times during his NHL career.

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LESSONS LEARNED

As noted, there wasn’t much player safety action on this Monday of regular season action. But I learned several things about DoPS that outsiders might not realize.

1. Youth Movement

Prior to this evening, I had believed everyone outside of Quintal, Echevarrieta, Burke and Pronger who worked at the NHL in some sort of hockey operations and/or discipline role were grumpy old men. You know, guys who are around my dad’s age that reminisced about the good old days when players didn’t wear helmets.

I was wrong.

In addition to the four mentioned above, Dept. of Player Safety Manager Evan Rand and five Player Safety coordinators round out the department. The coordinators and Rand are all in their late twenties and thirties. (And yes, it’s a group of all men. Something that Burke states they’re actively working to change.)

To be a coordinator, one has to know not just the rulebook, but how to work a computer, video editing equipment, enter things in a database, i.e. things my dad can’t do on his own.

The room is set up stadium-seating style with about 25 computer and television screens inside.

The wall closest to the door showcases 12 flat-screen television monitors that can hold individual games, or transform to make one game really big; on the left hand wall is another large television. The front row of seats holds six workstations with two large computer monitors and a laptop in each spot. The back row is where the management sits with their laptops and iPads (not included in screen count), and where I sat. From here, they can see all 12 monitors and six laptops and the screens up front.

Each night, Echevarrieta or Burke hand out the assignments to the coordinators. Each coordinator is watching one game at a time, and has to watch BOTH home and away feeds on his monitors. By doing so, he is cutting down on the bias of a broadcast; an offending player’s broadcast is less likely to re-air multiple clips at multiple angles of an offense than is the broadcast of the player who was injured on the play.

The coordinators tended to follow the same pattern. Pause one of the two feeds, watch the other one live, and make notes as they watched. (The notes they’re logging are those that come up in the course of the game, such as shoving matches, scrums, legal hits … basically, something that might lead to a fight or retaliation later on.) They’d catch up the other feed on commercial breaks and at intermission. Often they were going back and forth using the DVR capabilities of the system to compare plays at different times of the broadcast.

When they see something questionable, they bring it to the attention of the senior people in the room, which appears to be Echevarrieta and Burke on most nights. Those two are also watching games on their laptops, iPads and on the televisions in the room.

2. “What rule did they break?”

A question raised to me frequently by Echevarrieta when I’d ask why a play wasn’t whistled or clipped for further review.

Because I feel the need to always be right, I was spending a lot of time looking up actual rules in the rulebook and trying to relate him to what I saw. It’s not as easy as I had always assumed it would be.

This is what DoPS faces in a hearing. They have to explain their decision as it relates to the clear-as-mud rulebook to the player, GM, agent, and NHLPA rep on the other side of the phone (or table).

As far as an official missing a call on the ice, it’s not Player Safety’s position to reprimand the official. They’re also not in charge of levying fines for diving, rescinding match penalties, or disciplining inappropriate gestures on the ice. All of that falls under the umbrella of Hockey Operations. They are only about players and their safety during the course of a game.

3. DoPS lives and dies by Stephane Quintal’s decisions.

Echevarrieta and Burke cut clips from games that even they disagree upon. One guy might see a late hit; another might see a guy pulling up and losing an edge. To hedge their bets, they cut the footage and send it to Quintal.

As Echevarrieta says in a Board of Governors video on the department, “If we only sent the [really] bad clips, then some wouldn’t seem as bad as others.”

In the email to Quintal, the coordinator includes: Both broadcast feeds of the hit at all angles presented; the offending player’s history with DoPS; status of the player on the receiving end (injured on play, did not return, finished the game, etc.); penalty called on the ice, if any; and when the offending player’s team plays again.

That scheduling bit informs the timeline. If the offending player’s team has a back-to-back, the decision on a hearing has to be made quickly.

From there, Quintal assesses whether or not it the play warrants further discussion.

If Quintal chooses to move forward, he individually emails the Player Safety group, which includes Burke, Echevarrieta, Pronger and others, and asks for their opinion on the play.

After receiving and considering the group’s feedback, Quintal makes a judgment to proceed further by way of a hearing, fine, warning, or drop the issue.

If there is a hearing, Quintal and his department hear from the player, along with the general manager, agent and NHLPA representatives. At the conclusion of the hearing, Quintal takes his team’s opinions into consideration before he alone comes to the final verdict and punishment.

Player Safety gets a lot of heat for uneven judgments. Based on how they’ve set themselves up, they see everything. Yet it appears that once the issue is elevated to Quintal’s attention, it is up to him to move forward.

4. Working in Player Safety comes at a cost.

Having a personal life outside of the office seems virtually impossible. There is one coordinator for every game on the schedule. Burke and Echevarrieta are in the room every night, with few exceptions.

The main part of their job takes place at night when the games are on; however, the rest of the NHL does not operate on DoPS’s schedule. Meetings and hearings can turn an eight-hour day at the office into a 16-hour day quickly. Even then, you are working vampire hours with games starting at 7:00 p.m. ET and the late games ending around 1:30 a.m. ET.

The other part is mental. Not just the grind of the hours, but knowing that no matter what you do, there is always going to be someone that is mad at you and thinks you’re terrible at your job.

General managers, broadcasters, owners and fans have their say through different channels on how DoPS operates.

It’s a no-win situation.

They are beholden to the rulebook and do what they can to influence it. Ultimately, if there is a going to be a fundamental shift in the game, like a zero tolerance policy for contact with the head, it’s not coming from this department. That’s on the owners and NHLPA to decide.

5. Finally: YES, THEY SAW THAT PLAY YOU’RE VERY ANGRY ABOUT.

But thanks for sending those GIFs to @NHLPlayerSafety.