Colin Campbell and Those Messy E-Mails
E-mails. Again. They tripped up Ted Saskin, or at least his penchant for reading those of others, and now it's Colin Campbell's turn.
This is the great "AHA!" moment for some, and while it's not quite a Tiger Woods sexting episode, it's making the NHL's disciplinarian squirm.
Actually, that was more the case nine months ago when the emails were first made public at a hearing into the dismissal of referee Dean Warren. Star reporter Rob Cribb, one of the best in the business, covered that hearing with a series of stories that included Campbell's emails to referee-in-chief Stephen Walkom.
And no one cared. Nobody else even covered the story. And the NHL wasn't happy that The Star did.
Today, the reverberations are different because local blogger Tyler Dellow took the evidence one step further, putting together some evidence on the players he believes Campbell was referring to in those emails, including Campbell's son.
Now, suddenly everybody cares. When it was just about a fired ref, it didn't matter. It's an interesting comment on these media times, including the fact some "bloggers" are twisting this to suggest the "main stream media" is out to protect the establishment and figures in power. Why these people weren't outraged and up in arms when Cribb was writing his stories and The Star was publishing them is unclear. If you employ the logic of the bloggers, their silence was evidence that they were the ones protecting the establishment.
But all that's just superficial media chatter. The meat of this story boils down to one straightforward question; does this constitute this a firing offence for Campbell?
The NHL says no. That's what they said in February, and that's what they say now. The connection some want to make is that the NHL disciplinary system is a mess, and Campbell runs that system, and these emails prove he lacks integrity, so firing him will fix the system.
Well, parts of that might be true, and other parts not so much.
The NHL disciplinary system is an illogical swamp of confusion, and it's been that way for a long, long time, well before Campbell took over. It's why they once had a nasty riot in Montreal. Other than occasional spasms of enlightenment, the NHL has historically chosen not to punish transgressors very hard, and sometimes not at all. Lest we forget, it was Brian Burke who decided Claude Lemieux only deserved two playoff games for crushing Kris Draper's face in during the 1996 playoffs.
But remember, Burke worked for Gary Bettman, and Bettman worked and still works for the owners. It's the owners, folks, who make the macro decisions on how they want the suspension system to work, and that continues through to today. If Tom Golisano or Philip Anschutz or Charles Wang or Jeremy Jacobs or Daryl Katz or Rocky Wirtz wanted to patch together enough votes at the NHL board of governors to vote in a new system that would abolish the current two games here, one game there system, it would happen.
But the owners don't want that, because they know it might adversely affect their team and possibily their business. Look at the screaming reaction of the San Jose Sharks when Joe Thornton received a TWO GAME ban recently. You think Shark ownership will be at the meetings next month in West Palm Beach demanding a more draconian justice system for the league? Of course not.
Just as Brian O'Neill, then, didn't design the parameters of NHL supplemental discipline back in his day, but simply dispensed it within those parameters, so it was the same for Burke and for Campbell today. This is not a league populated by owners who want all violence or misconduct punished heavily, so that leaves Campbell, just like his predecessors, in a tricky spot.
So if you, like I, believe the NHL disciplinary system needs an overhaul, the people who can change it are the owners. Campbell's an employee doing his job under the job description handed to him and to pretend otherwise is either naivete or ignorance. The other part of the equation is that he has to deal with the NHL Players Association, which only goes to bat for those who break the law, never the victims. It's a weird system that produces unjust results. Just ask Steve Moore.
So we go back to the connection between these emails, Campbell and the system. Firing him won't change the system. The next guy will face the same limitations.
Does he deserve to be canned anyway for the inappropriate comments made through internal emails to a fellow employee? Can you imagine if your company emails were made public, and how you'd explain the ones you sent to your buddy because you trusted him and never believed the world would see them? But it's clear Campbell's emails produce an unflattering picture of how the league dealt with a specific problem.
What we do know is that the Ontario Labour Relations Board has decided the emails did not show Warren was unfairly fired, but that he was dismissed for "substandard performance." That's what the hearing was about. The new argument made by through Dellow's blog and by Campbell critics is that the emails show he was biased against certain NHLers and in favour of others, specifically his son, Gregory.
If specific proof beyond these emails can be offered, that would be damning evidence indeed. Campbell's a very good man, but he can't run the league in favour of some more than others, and if it can be demonstrated that's the case, and it hasn't been so far, than it would be difficult for him to stay. Hey, even Don Fehr might poke his head out and take notice if union members were being treated unfairly.
In years of regular conversations with Campbell I cannot recall a single incident in which it seemed he was out to get or embarrass a certain player. In fact, I often urged him to be tougher on the perceived jerks and rats of the league, but he was always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. He always thought as a player, and still does. When it came to his son, other than laughing about the fact his wife wanted him to talk Gregory into wearing a visor, there was never a scrap of a suggestion he had any involvement other than a dad watching his kid. That some call this nepotism is ridiculous; Campbell didn't hire his son, didn't draft him or play for him. Gregory has always had to deal with this nonsense - imagine the crap a creep like Sean Avery spits at him - but he chose to be a hockey player, just like his pa.
If you want to hang Colin Campbell based on these emails because you believe they are evidence of a biased person, that's your perogative. I won't, even though I have written critical columns of Campbell and the NHL justice system since the middle 1990s. He believes fighting is part of the game, I don't. I thought James Wisniewski deserved 20 games. He didn't. We don't agree on a whole lot, but because we disagree doesn't mean I think he lacks integrity. Just the opposite, in fact. My guess is the NHL won't be inclined to dump Campbell either. He's been too good a human shield for the Bettman administration for too long.
Still, it could be that Campbell's time has run out anyway. Doing this thankless job for more than a decade may just be too long, if only because the job entails being a daily lightning rod for a disciplinary system that is under the control of others. The enormously positive changes in the sport that Campbell ushered through the system during and after the lockout - he's the one who sold them to the owners, who bought what he was selling and produced a vastly improved game - aren't valued to the same extent he's blamed for the wonky suspension system.
If Campbell goes, the next hanging judge will find himself in the very same situation. He'll just know to be more careful with the email trail.