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When can a coach be held ‘responsible’ for the actions of his players?

Jan 21, 2014, 4:19 PM EDT

Bob Hartley AP

When Flames head coach Bob Hartley was fined $25,000 by the NHL in the wake of Saturday’s line brawl in Vancouver, the league ruled that the fine was “issued in accordance with By-Law 17.3 (a) for conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the League.”

Said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations: “We are holding Mr. Hartley responsible for the actions of Flames right wing Kevin Westgarth, who took the game’s opening faceoff and attempted to instigate a premeditated fight with an unwilling opponent — the Canucks’ Kevin Bieksa.”

Now, you’ll note that the league never outright accused Hartley of telling Westgarth to start the fight, though at least one report suggested that was the case.  This is important, because after the game Hartley pleaded total innocence, saying he had “zero intentions” when he started Westgarth, along with another noted tough guy, Brian McGrattan.

But the NHL still held Hartley responsible for what Westgarth did. And even though Calgary’s general manager, Brian Burke, was “perplexed” by that decision, here’s the thing — what were the Flames going to do about it?

Unlike suspended players who have a defined appeals process, as laid out in the CBA that their union negotiated with the league, an appeal for a suspended coach would have to go straight to the full Board of Governors, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The maximum fine under By-Law 17.3 (a) is $1 million, and there are no limitations on the length or duration of the suspension.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many of Ron Rolston’s counterparts around the league were reportedly miffed when the former Sabres bench boss was fined for “player selection” after the John Scott-Phil Kessel incident in the preseason.

“So what am I supposed to do now?” one anonymous coach asked the QMI Agency. “Do I call the ref over and call timeout so I can call Colie Campbell and ask him who I can put on the ice?”

And as on-ice violence continues to be a hot-button issue, with many suggesting that fining coaches and clubs more aggressively may be an effective way to cut down on those incidents (forfeiting their own money is one thing for players; costing their coaches a big chunk of change is another much more uncomfortable one), it begs the question, which PHT asked Daly in an email: “Could this method of punishment be more widely applied in the future — i.e., when is a coach NOT responsible for the actions of his player?”

Daly replied that it was a “tough question” to answer.

“I would say that there are certain things that happen on the ice that we will automatically ascribe a certain level of responsibility to the coach, and there are other things that happen, where we don’t use that presumption,” he wrote. “[In Hartley's case], the totality of the circumstances indicated to us that the Coach in this case had to be held accountable for what went on on the ice.”

If you’re a coach, what’s your level of comfort with that explanation? In the future, are you going to think twice about sending out your enforcer types? Remember, there’s a precedent now. You may be held responsible for their actions.

And where’s the line? Could it eventually be pushed out to include responsibility for a player, enforcer or not, with a motive for revenge who gets sent out over the boards? The argument could easily be made that the coach bears responsibility if revenge is taken.

  1. AppealToReason - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:39 PM

    I bet if Westgarth even pretended to win the draw this would be a harder argument. The fact he stood halfassed waiting for the second he could take his gloves off makes any defence pretty tough.

    • joey4id - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:12 PM

      Westgarth did drop his gloves first. But! It could be argued that he did so because Bieksa took the face off. A defense lawyer could argue that (I’m not saying that’s why he dropped the gloves) when Bieksa, a d man, stepped in to take the face off it led Westgarth to believe that Bieksa’s intentions was to fight.

  2. charlieconway96 - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:42 PM

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this wouldn’t even be a thing right now if Tortorella hadn’t tried to get at their dressing room. But then again, that probably wouldn’t have happened if Hartley had engaged Torts on the benches instead of standing there with a smug look.

    • joey4id - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:18 PM

      Why would Hartley let himself get suckered into a verbal confrontation with a keg of dynamite? Torts’ fuse is so short that he bound to explode any minute, which he did. He hung himself with all the rope that Hartley gave him.

  3. bwayblueshirt - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:53 PM

    Hartley is either stupidly guilty or guiltily stupid. He put out Westgarth and McGrattan to score a quick goal? Right. And A-Rod went to Biogenesis for vitamin supplements. Makes me laugh. This would be the big headlining issue if Torts hadn’t eclipsed it by laying siege to the visitors locker room. Hartley got what he deserved. Or at least a c good chunk of it.

  4. imleftcoast - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    This shouldn’t be subjective. Burke is milking it for self promotion. That line hadn’t started all season, the center had taken three faceoffs and the Canucks were short centers and reeling after that roadtrip. Starting a fourth line that goes out and throws hits should not be questioned, but a line brawl to start the game probably should be an automatic one-game suspension for both coaches. Maybe add a Torts rule for dressing rooms, and Roy rule for attacking partitions. The problem is the lack of consistency.

  5. sjsharks66 - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:33 PM

    Hartleys actions on the bench were almost as bad as Torts locker room incident. How are you going to submit your starting line up, have the outcome you knew would happen and then just sit at the bench like nothing happened. He sat around as if to play dumb, then his answered about a quick goal from McGratton? That has to be a joke.

    Look, Torts actions were out of control. So is sitting through all of that and playing dumb as if trying to avoid the punishment you know is coming. Man up, address Torts on the bench. Tell him his team has been goons the past few games and you were giving him a taste of his own medicine. It’s as simple as that!

    • bigoldorcafromvan - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:52 PM

      I don.t agree with your comments very often sjshark but your bang on with your assessment about Hartley. Torts was totally wrong for going to the dressing room and he is paying for it now. If NOBACKBONE BOB stood up for himself and even looked at Torts this would have been over soon. I also believe that Burke put the pressure on spineless Bob to get something out of the team, Bob will be gone soon.

  6. flash8910 - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:47 PM

    Someone please refresh my memory did the Bruins coach get fined after Thornton went insane.

    • bigoldorcafromvan - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:53 PM

      NO>

    • hockeyflow33 - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:26 PM

      What?

  7. penguins87and71 - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:01 PM

    I don’t even get why Westgarth is even being fined. The NHL is basically fining a coach for putting his 4th line out! It’s ridiculous! John Tortorella is more at fault then Westgarth is. Torts didn’t have to put out his 4th line just to match the Flames 4th line. He should have put his 1st line on the ice no fighter is going to want to fight a star player like the Henrik or Daniel Sedin, and even if the Flames players dropped their gloves the Canucks should have taken down the ice and scored.

  8. micasa81 - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:22 PM

    This same old boys’ club that is complaining that they don’t know when it’s safe to send certain guys onto the ice have completely brought this on themselves. If you’re going to be adamant that fighting is a necessary part of the game (and I’m not disputing that here), what is *your* solution for when a coach puts his bruisers on for the opening puck drop with the clear intention of causing trouble? How do you propose to draw a line to keep individual cases from making a mockery of the game? If you want a league that doesn’t officially allow fighting, but tacitly kinda-sorta does, then maybe you should quit your whining when the league makes judgment calls about when a coach has gone too far. It’s either that or fighting is flat-out banned from the game.

  9. penguins87and71 - Jan 21, 2014 at 7:22 PM

    I never said I was against fighting in the NHL. The thing is why should the NHL punish Westgarth for putting his 4th line out there on the ice. Also Tortorella has the luxury of putting out his line out last. When he saw the posted lineup why did he decide to put his tough guys on the ice to match the Flames tough guys on the ice. He knew there would be a huge fight before the game by doing this. If he would have put his top line on the ice none of this would have never happened! No 4th line player that fights would have fought Henrik Sedin or Daniel Sedin, most fighter don’t fight superstars. They fight players that are like them.

  10. 19wasthebest - Jan 21, 2014 at 7:46 PM

    One thing everyone is forgetting is that when Hartley was coach in Colorado he had a enforcer (don’t remember who, this just came out a couple weeks ago) that he told to go fight or he would send him down and find someone who would. Hartley is a POS.

    • 19wasthebest - Jan 21, 2014 at 7:51 PM

      I believe it was Scott Parker but not positive.

    • shortsxit34 - Jan 21, 2014 at 10:47 PM

      A lot of teams have a guy like that, though. Do you think John Scott is an NHLer for his skill?

  11. qrycher - Jan 22, 2014 at 1:37 PM

    There is no way a coach should get a fine for whatever players he wants out to start a game or end it. If those players are allowed to be on teams, for whatever reason, then the coach should be allowed to play them whenever he sees fit. Hey NHL, if you don’t want this stuff, how about you decide what players can and can not play in the league and you pick the teams? I love this stuff and have no problem with it and you can bet everyone will watch the next game between them to see what happens!

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