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National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman speaks in Toronto on August 25, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman speaks in Toronto on August 25, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Next test for NHL on discipline comes in the off-season Add to ...

As the NHL looks to get tough on discipline, the next true test won't come when a player throws another wayward elbow or injures an opponent with a hit from behind.

It will happen far away from the ice, in a boardroom at a posh hotel, when the board of governors gather again in June.

That's when commissioner Gary Bettman plans to hold a discussion with league owners about fining organizations that consistently have players running afoul of the law. He first raised the idea during last week's GM meetings but it barely registered among other initiatives aimed at concussions.

In light of the stiff suspension given to Penguins agitator Matt Cooke this week - and questions about whether the league will continue to crack down - it's worth revisiting.

Bettman didn't outline his exact plans, but he is believed to be in favour of a tiered system with increasing fines. For example, an organization might be docked $250,000 (U.S.) once its players have totalled 10 games in suspensions over a season and then face a stiffer financial penalty at 15 games, 20 games and so on.

The commissioner is also interested in looking at penalizing other members of an offending organization.

"If a player or players are subject to repeat disciplinary procedures that result in supplemental discipline, it will be the club, and perhaps the coach, that will be held responsible," Bettman said in Florida.

The reaction of owners to the idea will be telling. As much as league disciplinarian Colin Campbell has been criticized for being too lenient with suspensions, an often overlooked part of the process is the fact many owners haven't been keen on seeing their players forced to sit out long bans.

Change must come from the very top.

There seems to be a growing appetite for that as evidenced by recent comments from Pittsburgh co-owner Mario Lemieux, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk (Bettman, by the way, is likely to remind governors he disapproves of such statements being made publicly).

Lemieux appears eager to lead the charge. He proposed a supplementary discipline system that would see organizations fined with every suspension - unlike the Bettman model, where it only comes at certain thresholds - even though he would likely have thrown the most money in the pot if such a standard was in place this season.

"The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future," Lemieux wrote to Bettman in a letter dated March 7. "We need to review, upgrade and more clearly define our policies in this regard, so that they can provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game."

While organizational fines come with some potential problems - it's reasonable to assume the back-channel pressure on Campbell might increase - they also have the potential to change behaviour.

How many coaches will continue putting players on the ice who are costing them money? Further, how many owners will want to keep those type of individuals on the payroll?

Perhaps most importantly, a call for increased supplementary discipline from the governors should carry serious weight. It will give Campbell the same mandate he received from GMs last week and almost certainly result in tougher penalties.

The league's dean of discipline has been extremely busy this season - Campbell has handed out 31 suspensions totalling 114 games so far - and the price for crossing the line might be on the rise again next year.

If that's what the owners really want.

 

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