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I have never met Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal. When I retired from the NHL in 2003, he was not quite 16 years old and we did not cross paths thereafter. From what I have heard, he is a likable young man off the ice. Most hockey people are.
I have seen enough of Neal’s play over the years with the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh to know that he is a very gifted offensive player with size, skill and an explosive shot. At age 26, he’s already been a 40-goal scorer in the NHL and he’ll probably do it a few more times in years to come if he stays healthy.
I have also seen enough of his play to know something else: James Neal is not my type of hockey player. He has been involved in multiple incidents, showing reckless disregard for the safety of fellow players. Furthermore, he’s a player who has acquired the reputation for being a diver.
The law of diminishing returns, which I learned in my college days at the University of Pennsylvania, comes into this. For all of Neal's talent, he is at risk of starting to cost his team more than he gives. Which each new incident, he becomes more and more of a distraction to his own team.
When I was an active referee, I would tell the team leaders and the coach to get control of such players or I would have to do it for them -- and they wouldn't like the result. If I told Ray Bourque or Dave Poulin to get someone on their team in line, I never had another problem with that guy. I would hope Sidney Crosby could be told the same thing by an official, but I have not seen that sort of leadership from him.
Lest you think I am picking on the Pittsburgh Penguins, this has nothing to do with the uniform anyone wears. I don't care about that. I could just as easily be talking about the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs or any other club. Fill in the blanks.
What I am talking about there is a player who pushes things too far and becomes more of a detriment than a help to his team. The NHL does not hold this player accountable and, thus far, neither have the leaders in his dressing room.
Sean Avery was like that. When he was a rookie with Detroit and starting up with some of after-the-whistle and behind-the-play the antics he'd become infamous for, I once pinned him to the boards with my forearm and told him to cut the nonsense or I'd personally splatter him on the ice.
Give me an honest, genuine tough guy any day of the week over a Kenny "the Rat" Linseman or an Avery. Give me an unassuming, hard working role player who parlays modest talent into a lengthy career that outlasts many of the stars. I'll take 1,000 players like Craig Ludwig or Ian Laperriere.
Does Neal want to be known for the points he accumulates or as someone who can't be trusted by his own team? More and more, people don't think of Neal first and foremost as a goal-scorer. You know how I think of him?
I think of Neal as a player who has already been suspended three times in his career for dirty hits. That includes a five-game suspension earlier this season for a kneeing incident. Additionally, between his years in Dallas and Pittsburgh, he has previously been involved in least other three potentially suspendable incidents with his stick where he was fined and/or warned by the League.
This past Thursday, Neal was at the center of yet another incident. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings, Neal went head-hunting with a cross check directly to the head of opposing forward Luke Glendening. Neal had time and opportunity to make a legal check but instead delivered a high hit with the stick that, at absolute best, was reckless and stupid. At worst, he was deliberately trying to cause injury.
Fortunately, the stick made only glancing contact with Glendening. The Detroit player was unhurt and kept skating down the ice. Neal received a two-minute minor on the play for cross-checking.
By virtue of the fact that Glendening was not injured on the play, the NHL elected to issue only a fine ($5,000) to Neal rather than to suspend him. I understand why the result of the play needs to taken into consideration in supplementary discipline – I do the same when reviewing playing for possible suspension – but intent and the offending player’s past history also need to be taken into genuine consideration.
The NHL and its Department of Player Safety pays lip service to wanting to stamp out hits to the head. They claim to weigh past history in the formula for suspension. They say intent is considered. So what the hell happened here? Beats me.
Mind you, Neal has already been given a break by the NHL this season for his repeated diving. In a February 7 game against the New York Rangers, Neal received his third penalty of the season for embellishment. There is no doubt that the penalty was deserved.
Under Rule 64.3 – a Rule the NHL made a whole lot of hoopla about creating to take a harder stance on divers – players are subject to a one-game suspension for a third diving penalty in a season. Neal, however, was not suspended.
Why no suspension? Supposedly, it was because the player had not been warned by the NHL after the first or second diving incidents this season.
As Phil Rizzuto would say, "Holy Cow!"
The NHL did not follow its own protocol here. Rule 64.3 states that a first offense for diving/embellishment during the season “will result in a warning letter being sent to the player.” The second such incident “will result in a one thousand dollar ($1,000) fine.” Additionally, the League has the right to review video on plays where no diving or embellishment penalty was assessed and to put a strike against the player under the Diving protocol.
Neal had strike one, strike two and strike three. None of the previous penalties were officially rescinded from his record as far as I know, so he should have been suspended. This whole thing amounted to a foul-tip where the catcher dropped the ball on strike three so the hitter was not called out.
To recap, last month Neal got his third strike under the diving protocol. He was given a break. This month, Neal was guilty of at least the seventh League-reviewed play in his career for a reckless or dirty hit. He was given a break again, in the same season where there was no choice but to banish him for five games for kneeing an opponent in the head.
The NHL has sent a message to James Neal that he can do as he pleases until the next time he causes an injury. Flagged repeatedly for diving? That's OK, just sit your two minutes and be on your way. Rinse, wash, repeat. It makes my blood boil and the gets those old enforcer instincts of mine running on red alert.
Situations like these are why I say that the NHL Rule Book is a house of cards built on a foundation of sand. James Neal could be the poster child for what is wrong with the NHL discipline system as steered by Brendan Shanahan and, before him, the doubtable … um, redoubtable… Colin Campbell.
From day one, Campbell has been negligent at best and cowardly at worst. Soupy's Axiom to the Peter Principle is that some people rise BEYOND their level of incompetence in a bureaucracy.
I am sure this is going to endear me to the folks in Pittsburgh, Toronto and New York. That's fine. It had to be said.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.