Bell Suspension: New Policy, inconsistent discipline, or piling on?

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that yesterday’s 15 game suspension of Mark Bell was a surprise to everyone because it seemed to come out of nowhere. There is no real precedent for the NHL to suspend players for their off-ice conduct and certainly not with a suspensionof the magnitude of 15 games. So my question is, why Mark Bell, why now?

To review, prior to last season Mark Bell was caused an accident while driving impaired and to make matters worse, he fled the scene of the accident. This past summer he plead guilty and will face up to 6 months in jail time which he will serve at the conclusion of this NHL season. It seemed that the Judge didn’t feel it was necessary to punish Bell more by forcing him to miss part or all of the NHL season. But apparently Gary Bettman didn’t see it the same way.

“Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility for exemplary conduct off the ice as well as on it,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Gary Bettman’s reason for suspending Bell is because he didn’t conduct himself in an exemplary way off the ice. So the question I have is, what is exemplary conduct? Is drinking and driving but not causing an accident exemplary? If not, shouldn’t Jay Bouwmeester be facing a suspension in the very near future for pleading guilting to driving while impaired? Apparently this is not the case and driving while under the influence of alcohol does fall within Bettman’s view of ‘exemplary conduct’ since Ian White never received a suspension for his DUI charge or subsequent charge of driving with a suspended licence. Does driving recklessly and at high speeds causing an accident and killing someone fall within Bettman’s view of exemplary conduct? Apparently so as current Ottawa Senator Dany Heatley was never suspended when he plead guilty to vehicular homicide. And what about underage drinking? Is that exemplary conduct? Apparently so as Jordan Staal has yet to receive a suspension or any other punishment from the league.

One could easily argue that Bell’s suspension is warrented and that what Bell did is at least as bad or far worse than the other cases I described above, but if what Bell did is worth a 15 game suspension (and Bettman said it would ahve likely been more except Bell has shown good progress in turning his life and his alcohol dependency around), wouldn’t one or all of the other cases I described above be worthy of at least a game or two suspension? I would think so. To me this Bell suspension wreaks of piling on and probably a bit of not wanting the NHL to look soft on the conduct of its players in light of the Michael Vick situation and how the NFL handled that (indefinitely suspending Vick). I will try not to get into a debate as to whether Bell should be suspended but unless Bettman is going to follow through and suspend guys like Bouwmeester and Staal then I can only conclude that the idea of suspending players for off ice conduct is not a new policy and is at best inconsistent discipline or at worst piling on and in either case is just more evidence of Gary Bettman’s incompetence as a commissioner.

This article has 12 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. In fact I wanted to email Steve Simmons to try to get this point across. Sure Bell deserves a suspension, but the bar has now been set. Time for Heatly, White, Bowmiester, Staal, Emerey to all be suspended. Wont happen, Commish is too weak.

    The way I see it, you make the decision to drive drunk, then you face the music … if you injure or kill someone, or simply get pulled over by the cops its all the same- the truth is driving drunk to me is similar to attempted murder. Maybe a bit harsh, but it is wreckless and un-nessassary. But none the less, it is a poor decision – getting pulled over by the cops may just be saving the person from killing someone….

  2. This is also a dangerous legal precendent that the NHLPA should be looking into — can the league arbitrarily suspend a player without pay for something he’s already been sentenced for, occurred away from the confines of the game, and he is currently being treated for? It’s neither their responsibility, nor their right. Bell’s union, if it wasn’t going through a process of being de-skirted right now, should be up to their elbows in this for the benefit of all their members. It’s not about whether or not one condones driving drunk; it’s about the degree to which we respect existing laws so that we can all be safeguarded equally. If Bell has a bad season, this could be the end of his career, and then he’d have a court case against Bettman. Watch for it.

  3. It’s also a particularly dangerous precedent given the above examples that DJ provided – Bettman is now either deciding what is and is not acceptable behaviour off the ice OR he’s deciding when the courts have or have not suitably punished the individuals involved. Is that something the commissioner of a sports league should be involved in?

  4. The NFL sure seems to think so.

    The NHL union would not support Mark Bell on this one. The NFL union, toothless though it is, did not support any of the players suspended for off-field activities.

    I don’t think this sets a dangerous precedent. These sorts of things don’t happen very often.

  5. I dont think this sets a dangerous precedent at all. Like it or not DUI’s happen all the time, hockey players aren’t excluded from thsi group. Bell was driving drunk, he was going to lose his licence, the league would have looked away. BUT he fled the scene of the crime. Bouwmeester didn’t do that, neither did White. and isn’t the legal drinking age 19 in Ontario? It’s not a big deal for Staal. Even if he’s 21, hes not getting behind a wheel. Basically when you make the league look bad you get suspended. When your charged with crimes the league has a right to step in because a player is in a way representing th league.

    Oh ya and I don’t think Heatley was convicted of vehicular homocide. No reason to bring that up. He wasn’t drunk, although he did have alcohol in him, and he didn’t flee. He was speeding, which isnt exactly a crime.

  6. Gary Bettman made a point that hockey players are responsible for “exemplary conduct off the ice” and Bell did not do that so he got suspended. So, apparently drunk driving is within the realm of exemplary conduct but leaving the scene of an accident isn’t. Fair enough, but shouldn’t Bettman announce to the world the parameters of what is considered ‘exemplary conduct’ and what is not? Are the parameters getting jail time? Does the suspension start at 15 games or are their lesser ‘bad conduct’ crimes that would warrant a lesser suspension. The whole thing seems like it just wasn’t well thought out and came out of nowhere.

    And yes, Heatley plead guilty to second degree vehicular homicide. See

    Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide, driving too fast for conditions, failure to maintain a lane and speeding for the Sept. 29, 2003, crash in Atlanta.

  7. I see no problem with no guidelines for this.

    Craig MacTavish wasn’t suspended either, was he? Dany Heatley wasn’t even drunk. Heatley sat out almost that whole season with injuries, so when was he going to be suspended? After he was declared healthy?

  8. No offence guys, but lets remember a couple of things here. To my knowledge, none of us are experts in the Law. Gary Bettman is the commisioner of the NHL, but he’s a Lawyer by trade. He got his Law degree from NYU in ’77. He also has an undergraduate degree from Cornell in Labour Relations. On top of this, lets consider the fact that the NHL has swathes of lawyers working for its legal department. I’m pretty sure the idea of setting a precedent is exactly what he had in mind when he put his foot down on this one.

    Whether or not you choose to accept it, driving while impaired, or DUI is a felony in the state of California, as is fleeing the scene of an accident. The fact is, none of the other athletes mentioned fled the scene of the situation they were involved in, Bell did. This merits more extreme punishment, in the form of his jail term, and logically led to a substantive penalty on the part of the NHL.

    Craig McTavish was convicted of vehicular homicide and as a result of his jail term MISSED THE ENTIRE 84-85 season. Bell is serving his jail term OUTSIDE the season, and this is likely what led to Bettman feeling it necessary to punish him with a 15 game suspension. Had the jail term been served during the hockey season, it is unlikely that Bettman would’ve interjected in this nature.

    You all keep mentioning Dany Heatley, and he pled guilty to vehicular homicide, and is serving 3 years probation as a result. It should be noted that Dan Snyder’s family requested leniency in this case. Perhaps if the victim in Bell’s accident had requested leniency the NHL would’ve looked less harshly upon him?

    Either way, the point of this is to set a precedent. Frankly it’s not THAT dangerous a precedent to set, the problem will arise if it is applied inconsistently. Frankly Judges should ignore sporting seasons, and require those convicted to serve jail time immediately rather than letting them “work” around it, if they think the crime is serious enough to warrant a prison term, it should be serious enough to warrant it immediately, not in 6 months… but that’s just my opinion.

  9. Either way, the point of this is to set a precedent. Frankly it’s not THAT dangerous a precedent to set, the problem will arise if it is applied inconsistently.

    Fair enough, but what is the precedent? It certainly isn’t driving while impaired because Bettman has yet to suspend Bouwmeester who plead guilty to that a month ago. If driving imparied, causing an accident, and fleeing the scene is worth 15 games (or possibly more as Bettman mentioned), wouldn’t driving impaired be worth at least one? Since nothing has been done with respect to Bouwmeester, then I can only assume that Bell is being used as a scape goat by the NHL and that the NHL isn’t really all that concerned about bad behaviour off the ice. They just want to put up the appearance that they are.

  10. Bouwmeester pled guilty and was penalized with the following:

    “Judge Michael Allen fined the Panthers blue-liner $1,000 and banned him from driving in Canada for a year. He must also pay a $150 victim surcharge.”

    Ian White was charged with a DUI while driving with a SUSPENDED LICENSE, and he also pled guilty.

    I suppose the fact that no one was injured and neither one fled the scene is the only distinction. I agree that the lack of clear guidelines helps this smack of ad hoc judgement on Bettman’s part.

    It might also have something to do with Mark Bell’s troubled past. He had legal issues when he was in Junior with the 67’s, so perhaps he stands out as someone that has been through this all before and since he isn’t a model citizen in other aspects of his life, the league can get away with going overboard.

  11. My whole problem is that unless there is a middle ground (i.e. something less than what Bell did being worth a 3 game suspension) then Bell just seems like a scape goat and a ‘look we are doing something too’ message to the mass media which is neither right/fair nor accomplishes anything. We’ll see what Bettman does with Downie and whether acting like a jerk on the ice is as bad as acting like a jerk off the ice. I doubt there will be any clear message sent, but hey, we have new jerseys. Maybe blood washes off them easier.

  12. Well I guess given the suspension of Downie, we now know that being a jerk on the ice IS worth a larger penalty than being one off the ice… if you aren’t a top flight star.

    Perhaps this is the beginning of a “new era” of justice from the NHL disciplinarians.

    If it is, I must say I don’t particularly mind it all that much. I’d like to see a lot of the thuggery and idiocy removed from the pro-game… it’s taken to an unnecessary level these days. You can intimidate other teams without playing over the line. Legal checks can be painful without being dirty.

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