There’s no league quite like the National Hockey League, there really isn’t.  No league tries harder to be accepted by its hardcore P1 base, yet endeavours to seek new fans wherever and however.

No pro sports league has the complexities of starting it’s season against Major League Baseball’s most vital and most-watched month of games (its playoffs), and no league has its playoffs battling with not just the first months where many of us can actually be outdoors and enjoy the weather without needing a wool cap and gloves, but also NBA playoffs, the start of baseball, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 (though the latter two events have certainly faded in stature in the last couple decades), and coming into its climactic series, really nice weather in early June.

No other pro sports league has once considered one of the “Big Four” which it clearly no longer is in the United States, and no other pro sports league has as low-risk/even lower reward in terms of a major network television deal, despite the best efforts of Versus during the season.

No other pro sports league has missed an entire season of activity, as it did in 2004-05, only to find it come back in October 2005, and find not nearly as people welcomed it back, as did rue its departure when it disappeared and went “poof”.

In short, the NHL has challenges, and then some.  It’s completely and utterly running one of its franchises in the Phoenix Coyotes, after suffering a public relations nightmare and many embarrassing revelations and accusations in a bankruptcy court case initiated by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, in a rogue attempt to hijack the team to move to Hamilton.  It has what can be described as “franchise survival issues” in Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas, Florida, and potentially Columbus.  Oh, and the New York Islanders who came into the league when there were only 16 franchises.  So, yeah, not good.

But one of the biggest issues in my mind the NHL has in the insular way in which they conduct their “external” affairs.  Yes, internal affairs ARE internal affairs.  We’re all allowed some degree of privacy, certainly in our personal lives, and at times equally as often in our professional lives.  Transparency’s impossible for people who work at almost any level of business, and I understand that completely.  I’ve often said general managers, coaches, and even players in sports can’t necessarily be truthful when asked questions, but it doesn’t make them liars by definition, not by a longshot.

But the NFL and NBA, to degrees more so than Major League Baseball, and certainly more than the NHL have remarkable credibility with their fanbases, for doing things properly, for getting in front of issues, instead of slipping behind them, only to offer muted responses to discipline issues, and to pretend there aren’t problems which need addressing.

The NFL had a problem in one weekend alone with too many players suffering concussions from helmet-to-helmet hits — they modified rules, to near-unanimous public support (and limited griping from players, and NO griping whatsoever from owners, managers, or head coaches).

The NBA realized they had a snake in the grass in disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who was attempting to deal his way out of a massive prison sentence.  They admitted they’d slipped up, hadn’t been as vigilant as they should have been to keep nefarious characters like Donaghy from its inner circle of officials, and promised its base and JUST as importantly its players and teams that it would never, ever happen again.

The NBA thought it was developing an image problem with how players dressed while sitting on or near NBA benches and how they would leave the arena after games.  Despite the controversy, and cries of “racism”, the league believed in the obvious principle that given the players ARE league employees, and just like your boss or my boss, they had the ability and right to set even a mild standard of dress for players a couple hours before and after each game.
Back to the NFL, and Commissioner Roger Goodell dealing with an image problem of its own with its players.  Goodell demanded higher behavioural standards off the field of play.  If you play in our league, Goodell reasoned, you’ll follow a certain code.  Getting arrested isn’t part of that code.  Making poor moral decisions even if you aren’t charged with a crime isn’t part of that code.  Carrying guns isn’t either.  The league took a chance, risked revolt and again, accusations of racism, and have treated players of all creeds and colours alike — screw up and we’ll deal with you harshly.

In the NHL, well, we’re just not sure where they stand on discipline, and things have gotten even cloudier now with the expansion of dialogue in emails exchanged a few years back between NHL vice-president Colin Campbell, and then-director of officiating Stephen Walkom, which are legally obtainable and publishable because of their involvement as evidence of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by fired NHL referee Dean Warren.

This is ground well-covered at this point but the emails are embarrassing both in terms of their profanity (yes, we’ve all been there and done that, sometimes to a lesser extent than Mr. Campbell to a man he was essentially a “boss” of), their appearance of inappropriate questions/answers, and as has been brought to light by hockey blogger Tyler Dellow, the certainly disputable, yet fair, suggestion that Colin Campbell has gotten himself over-involved and has “meddled” in both criticism and threats of dismissal against NHL referees (at least one, as many as three) who have called what he deems (even sometimes without seeing the penalty) unnecessary penalties against his son, Gregory, now a Boston Bruin, then a Florida Panther.

As I’ve said before, Campbell has seen and done it all in the NHL and I’d even make the argument that because of his versatility and ushering the league through changing eras, even before the 04/05 lockout, that the league will owe him a great debt of gratitude for at times, deflecting issues of controversy, disorganization, and an utter lack of transparency from others whom he works with.  He is said to be a man of “integrity”.  That word’s been tossed around a lot by those who know him personally.  I myself don’t know him personally, but I’m finding as time has moved on that knowing people “professionally” in this business allows one to maintain a greater semblance of objectivity than knowing them “personally”.  It’s not what I got into the business for, and if I make friends along the way, long-term or short-term, that’s fantastic – it only enriches the experience, but it won’t colour my judgement of what’s right and wrong, and clearly it has done just that for people who have waved their “hockey guy” hand at suggestings that Campbell at best, acted remarkably inappropriately and with belligerence towards his co-workers, and, for lack of a better term, underlings, and at worst, has committed a notable dereliction of his duties in not recognizing or respect the tremendous conflict of interest it is to question, comment on, rule, opine, or threaten punishment and/or job loss concerning decisions in hockey games involving a blood relative such as his son.

You won’t find it any of the other sports, you really won’t.  “Colie” is a good “hockey guy”, they say.  “Colie” acts with “integrity”, other “hockey guys” say.  OK, fine.  Who am I to judge?  Websters’ Dictionary defines “integrity” as “adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness or moral character, and honesty”.  “Hockey guy” in my travels is used far more than “football guy”, “baseball guy”, and “basketball guy” — exponentially so.  But often times, you will find – it’s used more as a defence of a personal nature, rather than an answer to questions of a professional one.

One may HAVE integrity, but if they are going to claim such a virtue as their own, and for others to pass such a noted label upon them, that person in question is going to have to do it a touch more often than Mr. Campbell has shown here in these emails.  One can have an honourable characteristic inherent in them, and I wouldn’t think to question that Campbell doesn’t, but you must demonstrate that on a foolproof and consistent basis in the line of work that good ol’ “Colie” is in.  He hasn’t done that in this case.  He’s left the door open to his critics, those who question every suspension, feel he has bias in his heart towards certain players or organizations — and like any relationship, professional or personal, once the trust and sacredness is broken, how can it become repaired?

Certainly not by another rug sweep job by the NHL.  Much like the Alex Burrows/Alain Vigneault/Stephane Auger affair, in which HNIC host Ron MacLean and Colin Campbell openly, without representation, and without providing any semblance of a defence or rebuttal, essentially hung Alex Burrows as a “faker” and a “liar” to a jury of his peers (the millions of fans, media, league executives, and players who watch CBC’s Saturday institution).

The segment lacked objectivity or fairness, and Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault had to say so (unasked of course) later that evening following the HNIC late game.

I mean, you tell me — in WHAT other pro sports league can a player, as Burrows did, and a coach, as Vigneault did, imply a referee has gone after a player with prejudice, after informing him in the pre-game skate that he will do just that, and there is NO investigation, there is NO face-to-face hearing, and there is NO punishment either way, besides a paltry $2500 fine for Burrows for questioning the integrity of the referee, and summarily the entire league?

Quick answer is there isn’t one.  If a player alleged a referee did that in the NBA (especially post-Donaghy) or the NFL, there’d be a swift and organized reaction.  Witnesses would be called, questions would properly be asked, and if the player’s accusation couldn’t be verified, he’d be in a boatload of trouble for bringing the league’s, “ahem”, integrity into question.   That and the Richards/Booth and Cooke/Savard incidents made it a tough year for Campbell, one which I wasn’t necessarily sure he would survive.

I do think he’s done this job too long and said so adamantly in the springtime following Cooke/Savard.  Of all players now for him to label a “fake artist” as he’s apparently (evidence looks quite damning) done with Marc Savard in these emails, a player who because of the league’s system of justice being so behind the times in terms of what the game has become (faster, more reckless, and thus, more dangerous), is simply hoping for another chance to play the game at which he is so talented at.

It would have also been so easy for Campbell to admit he’d gone too far in his emails.  As I said, he’s a likable, folksy guy (you know, say the “hockey guys”).  Can you imagine how instead of justifying to TSN that he was “just a hockey dad, venting”, he actually took one iota of accountability for anything which ANYONE could deem inappropriate?  Mr. Campbell, sir, with due respect, a “hockey dad venting” is exactly what your job does NOT entail, does NOT allow for, and which your employer should NOT stand for.  Be the league’s chief disciplinarian, or be a hockey dad.  The option should not allow for you to actively be both.  We assume you’ll cheer internally, or in the privacy of your own home, we assume you’ll hope your son touches the Stanley Cup one day and has a long and healthy career (one which the “fake artist”, your boy’s current teammate, again, is on his knees praying he’ll have again), but get this: you are NOT allowed to actually DO IT.  Oh, and the “it” part includes threatening to have refs fired because they called a penalty on your son.  “Integrity”?  No, not in this case.

I have a brain, I don’t always use it.  Some have hearts, and they don’t always use them.  We ALL have integrity (almost all) — a sense of right and wrong, a sense of just and fair, or tilted and imbalanced — but as Christian Bale’s Batman ended up learning from his cutesy child friend Rachel Dawes in “Batman Begins”:

“It’s not who I am, but what I DO that defines me”.

So it is.  Do I think Campbell should quit over this?  Or be fired?  Or should the disciplinarian be disciplined?  Frankly, no.  He should have over other issues.  Or just because fresh thinking and a new person might be necessary in this gig.  It’s maybe the hardest administrative job in all of North American pro sports, I could make that argument.  I think the new voices and new faces — those which don’t owe favours to The Sheriff, those who haven’t tipped beers with The Sheriff, those who haven’t played golf with The Sheriff — should be considered.  Roger Goodell and David Stern aren’t “buddies” with players or managers — it makes it easy for them to let them know “hey guys, it’s business – it’s nothing personal”.

If anything, hockey fans salivating over this controversy should be crushed if they were hoping Campbell would depart anytime soon.  I am not one of them — mostly because of how the revelations must hurt the mental and emotional state of Marc Savard and Gregory Campbell, completely innocent bystanders, dealt a cruel hand by a league executive and father’s careless, threatening, and profane words, and lack of an ethical compass to understand why some might think at least an “I got a bit carried away in these emails but I want what’s best for the league, the players, AND the officials andI do my job to the best of my ability and without an ounce of bias” explanation statement might be overdue.

Embattled leaders in history, be it because of economic crisis, war, or internal strife are often the hardest to remove from office.  They dig in deeper, they build barricades higher, and they then outlast their critics.  Any thought Campbell might depart of his own volition anytime soon goes out the window with this issue, because neither the league, nor he, will wish it to be perceived that he’s being forced out….remember, the league also likes to suggest its buildings are full, it’s US TV contract is a dream come true, that the Versus channel is available in major hotels, and that the Phoenix Coyotes are on solid financial ground.

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