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Watching for a Reason: NHL's Department of Player Safety Changing the Game

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

“Pause. Rewind. Enhance. Now let’s look at the reverse angle.”

The instructions come quickly from the back of the NHL’s Player Safety Room in New York City; a front-operating base that feels like a cross between the bridge of a ship and NASA’s mission control in Houston, Texas.

Every play will be seen. Each hit scrutinized. And the game made better for it.

That’s the simple goal of Damian Echevarrieta, the NHL’s vice president of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, Patrick Burke, director of Player Safety, and their team.

Determining whether a collision between two players at 20-plus miles per hour is delivered a fraction of a second too late hasn’t always been as “easy” as it is now, says Echevarrieta. He’s been with the NHL for 17 years and remembers when VCRs created squiggly white lines on the screen as they rewound game footage - and forget about watching all the matchups at once.

As the speed, skill and size of NHL players has developed over the previous decade, so too has the technology used to keep some of the world’s best athletes on the ice showing off their talents each night. The Department of Player Safety split off from the NHL’s Department of Hockey Operations in 2011 and built their own version of a “War Room” on the 12th floor of the NHL’s offices in midtown Manhattan; a space complete with wall-to-wall screens and streaming digital video ready to be marked, rewatched and clipped.

“When I started in the League 17 years ago, we were using videotape, and I don’t think we would have been able to have suspensions for illegal checks to the head when we were using videotape,” Echevarrieta said. “Quite often the difference between a suspension and a great hit is only a few inches. The difference between a hit being too late and a great hit is fractions of seconds.”

Each NHL game is assigned a member of the Department of Player Safety, who then watches the home and away broadcasts of the contest, denoting each penalty and making other notes on a computer so each important moment can quickly be recalled if necessary. As game action progresses, the team goes back and forth on each play, with questionable ones being reviewed by Echevarrieta and Burke moments after they happen. Incidents deemed serious enough will continue to move up the ladder to former NHL defenseman Stephane Quintal, now the senior vice president of Player Safety.

Sometimes the team disagrees and debates, being sure to consider precedent, with all the video available and sometimes even a postgame conference with the officials involved in the particular contest. Echevarrieta says they’re always sure to issue a fine or suspension prior to the team’s next game, so the entire process has to take place quickly.

“There are several filters before we start to make a big judgement on a certain play,” Echevarrieta said. “I think that keeps everyone honest. One person might not like a play, because he’s particularly sensitive to that kind of play, so this makes sure everyone has a say in it before it goes any farther. Every aspect of the game is looked at, and at the end of the day, Stephane Quintal has the final decision, but we all do give our input.”

For a team that watches hours and hours of hockey ultimately for the security of the players involved, Echevarrieta says it’s important to him to know that each night in the War Room, they’re all working to make the game a little bit better.

“It’s about figuring out how to play the game as fast and as hard as we have and limit the injuries; that’s the ultimate goal. It’s not about suspending players,” Echevarrieta said. “Every play of every single game is as important to us as any other. I think the fans need to know that we’re taking in every single game the same and everyone gets equal treatment and that everybody is playing within the same rules.”

Recently, the Department’s fine combing through each play came to action in the Nashville Predators 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 13. At 7:15 of the third period, Devils forward Jordin Tootoo put his right leg underneath the waist of Nashville d-man Seth Jones and flipped the Preds blueliner to the ice right in front of the dasherboards. A minor penalty for tripping was assessed on the play, and a day later, Tootoo was also fined $2,217.14 by the Department of Player Safety.

Tootoo told he understood the reasoning behind the fine.

"Seth is an up-and-coming, big-time player. You want to not only protect those guys but protect everyone throughout the League going into the corners,” Tootoo said. “Five feet away and going in at full speed we've seen guys break their legs or tear their knees up and stuff. I've just got to be more aware."

A player-driven desire to make the game safer like Tootoo’s isn’t that rare either. Multiple NHL players, especially repeat offenders, have visited the Player Safety War Room to see for themselves the League’s perspective on their on-ice actions and to try and eliminate any missteps from the game.

“When they come in here and actually take the time to see what we see, I think it does open their eyes,” Echevarrieta said.

The League has also started bringing in the Player Safety team to their Rookie Orientation Program each offseason for this same reason: to instill an understanding of proper play at a foundational level.

“Having a chance to explain the rules and show them what we do, and show them what it’s like to be on the other side, we actually have them look at feeds and ask if they would issue a suspension,” Echevarrieta said. “This year we had [former NHL defenseman and Stanley Cup winner] Chris Pronger showing an old hit of his. I think reaching out and making these guys understand the importance of player safety is where we’re headed.

“It’s changing the culture, which is what our intention was, to change player behavior on the ice, not to punish them, but to change their behavior for the better.”

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