People can argue – and they do – that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has issues with consistency in their rulings.  Each situation is different, and, as such, may require a different interpretation or application of a particular rule.

Player Safety, though, does not cover contact by players on officials.  That’s handled by the NHL’s Department of Hockey Operations.  Their rules are much more clear cut, as are their punishments.

To summarize Rule 40 on Abuse of Officials:

  • Category I – 20+ games: Any player who deliberately strikes an official and causes injury or who deliberately applies physical force in any manner against an official with intent to injure, or who in any manner attempts to injure an official
  • Category II – 10+ games: Any player who deliberately applies physical force to an official in any manner (excluding actions as set out in Category I), which physical force is applied without intent to injure, or who spits on an official,
  • Category III – 3+ games: Any player who, by his actions, physically demeans an official or physically threatens an official by (but not limited to) throwing a stick or any other piece of equipment or object at or in the general direction of an official, shooting the puck at or in the general direction of an official, spitting at or in the general direction of an official, or who deliberately applies physical force to an official solely for the purpose of getting free of such an official during or immediately following an altercation

When Anaheim’s Antoine Vermette slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso, he deliberately applied physical force to the official.  Appropriately, the officials’ postgame report detailed Vermette’s ejection as a Category II offense.

Yesterday, the NHL officially confirmed Vermette’s 10-game suspension.  Today, it’s reported that his suspension may be reduced to five games following an appeal.

An appeal is certainly within his rights, but decreasing his suspension is not something that should be considered.

Vermette has not run afoul of the league in the past. In his 12 years in the NHL, he has a clean record, save for an embellishment fine.  Regardless, the league needs to hold firm that any intentional physical contact with an official will not be tolerated and that, while harsh, a 10-game minimum is the standard.

It’s not that the message will be lost on Vermette. He’s not the kind of player who anyone would expect to do this again. It’s for all the other players – NHL and all leagues below, to show them that referees and linesman are off limits and that penalties will be severe for any players crossing that line.

Anaheim's Antoine Vermette watches the replay of his slash on linesman Shandor Alphonso

Anaheim’s Antoine Vermette watches the replay of his slash on linesman Shandor Alphonso

Vermette vs. Wideman

Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension for cross-checking linesman Don Henderson was later reduced to 10 games by an outside arbitrator, a decision still challenged by the NHL. Arbitrator James Oldham, later dismissed by the league who believed he overstepped his bounds in his role by reinterpreting the case rather than weighing in on the Commissioner’s decision, felt that there was insufficient evidence to determine Wideman’s intent to injure Henderson on the play.

While it’s fair to say that Henderson’s actions deserve far greater a suspension than Vermette’s, both initiated deliberate physical contact with an official.  Both require at least ten games.  Lessening Vermette’s punishment as a result is not the answer when it’s clear that Wideman got off with less than was deserved.

Comparing Player Safety vs. Hockey Ops

Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist recently received six games for a high stick – possibly a spear – that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety called a “potentially career threatening” play.  That’s a different court operating under a different set of guidelines. To compare the two, even though both hand out player suspensions, is unfair.  Perhaps Nyquist should have received a lengthier suspension, but that’s not relevant to Vermette’s case.

Players are competing against one another.  There’s plenty of legal physical contact, including stick work and body checks.

Not so with the zebras. There’s no reason for a player to ever have anything more than incidental contact with an official. There’s also no reason for the NHL to soften that stance.

Referee Tom Kowal explains the Abuse of Officials call on Vermette

Referee Tom Kowal explains the Abuse of Officials call on Vermette

Rulebook Relevance

Vermette’s infraction has a very specific penalty spelled out in the rulebook.  Deliberate physical contact, which unarguably happened, requires ten games under rule 40.3.  If we’re not going to enforce the rulebook in these situations, how can the league defend it in others?

No one questions that a high stick which causes injury requires a double-minor.  There’s no appealing that a hand on the puck in the crease is a penalty shot.

There’s no interpretation necessary here.  Like the stripes on the officials’ jerseys, it’s black and white.  Deliberate contact? No intent to injure? That’s ten games.


Vermette committed the crime.  Vermette should do the time.

The NHL needs to send that message to show that it stands behind the safety of its officials and to set an example for those in the lower leagues that physical abuse against officials, no matter how small, will simply not be tolerated.