| Partial credibility

Emails raise doubt about the NHL's chief discpliniarian

The issue of hits to the head has created a lot of buzz in the hockey world. Last week, the man whose responsibilities include ruling on headshot incidents as well as handing out fines and suspensions came under fire. A number of emails sent by NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell between 2006 and 2007 reflect questionable – at best – conduct on Campbell’s part. The emails, analyzed by blogger Tyler Dellow on mc79hockey.com, were made public after their use as evidence in a court hearing regarding the termination of former NHL referee Dean Warren. These documents have raised questions about Campbell’s impartiality, impulsiveness, and integrity regarding the enforcement of rules put in place to save players’ careers and lives. In a vacuum, the emails look bad; in context, Campbell looks like a man unfit to be the league’s disciplinarian.

Long before Dellow’s breakdown of the emails went public, many fans and media members harboured doubts about Campbell’s ability to accurately judge suspension-worthy offenses and were justified by his unpredictable track record on suspensions since. Boston Bruins’ play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards cites a lack of consistency when ruling on incidents with similar criteria and, more importantly, an utter failure to clarify for players what is and is not allowed. Edwards has long derided Campbell’s brand of discipline as “dartboard justice.”

Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke’s elbow to the head of Bruin Marc Savard in March 2010 is arguably the most infamous incident under Campbell’s watch. Cooke was not suspended, while Savard missed a month and a half with a grade-two concussion. Savard returned for seven games in the playoffs, but has not played yet this year due to post-concussion syndrome. Even Cooke’s teammate Bill Guerin said, “You [have] got to pay a price for that. … I understand [Cooke] is on my team but, hey, he’s in a tough spot.” Indeed, fans and players league-wide were perplexed by Campbell’s inaction. Constant inconsistencies forced NHL general managers to propose what is now known as the “blind-side rule,” outlawing blows to the head on unsuspecting players.

In Campbell’s redacted emails lies a reference to a “little fake artist” he coached in New York, and according to Dellow’s heady research, the embellisher-in-question is Marc Savard. Conspiracy theories aside, is it in the league’s best interests to have someone so clearly biased against certain players be its judge, jury, and executioner? Observers such as the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont have called for a panel of representatives from the league, the players’ association, and a referee to rule on suspensions and fines – an alternative that is looking very rosy compared to the status quo.

Campbell’s impartiality doesn’t stop at Savard or any other players he’s coached; his son Gregory plays in the NHL as well. The majority of the emails were conversations between Colin Campbell and then-Director of Officiating, Stephen Walkom. Dellow pins down multiple instances of games during or after which Campbell emailed Walkom complaining about officiating, with at least two instances involving a penalty call going against Gregory Campbell. After one of these cases, the elder Campbell suggested that Walkom “gas this shithead [referee].” When reached for comment by TSN, Campbell shrugged off the story. “It’s much ado about nothing. … Stephen knows I’m a (hockey) dad venting and both of us [know] it wouldn’t go any further than that.” Have you ever heard of a hockey dad calling for a referee to get gassed after a call against his kid?
Of course, it does go further than that. In addition to having the ear of the league’s Director of Officiating, the emails contain suggestions from Campbell to Walkom with requests from general managers for certain referees to officiate their games. With NHL officiating in poor regard as is, the public airing of Campbell’s dirty little game of “favourites” has cast the league’s referees in a crooked light. The NHL, while starved for attention south of the border, doesn’t need this notoriety in the least bit.

According to ex-referee Warren, Walkom confessed privately, “Look, if I gotta listen to Colin Campbell anymore I’m going to slit my own wrists.” Warren himself went on to say “Mr. Campbell was certainly ruling or making decisions on games involving Florida – his son’s team.” This frightening record of dishonest, borderline corrupt behaviour from a supposedly unbiased league official does not bode well for the NHL. While Campbell is prohibited from ruling on any disciplinary issue involving his son, there is no question that his influence, position, and rashness have altered the outcome of NHL games.

In any event, Campbell will likely remain in his current position for years to come, dictating punishments for league offenders with clueless abandon. Hockey’s “old boys’ club” of former players has already come swooping in to Campbell’s defence. Mainstream media outlets (especially those in Canada) have been asking the obligatory, cupcake questions on the matter, without so much as a peep regarding Campbell’s egregious abuse of his office in lobbying for calls for his son. “Oh, he’s just a hockey dad” doesn’t cut it when league integrity and, above all, players’ safety are at stake. He’s shown numerous times in the past that his poor judgment can affect his performance as league disciplinarian and as an ambassador of hockey.