The CWHL needs to be transparent about suspensions

There’s little room for obscurity when it comes to policies that impact player safety

Player safety is a topic we hear a lot about in the NHL, but we don’t hear nearly enough about it in the women’s game. Unfortunately, when we do hear about it, the discussion is sparked by concerned and outraged fans on social media. And this year, much of that outrage was directed at the CWHL.

The CWHL knows that hockey is a fast, physical, and dangerous sport. There is an entire page dedicated to the CWHL’s partnership with Complete Concussion Management on the league’s site. That page begins with the statement, “The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is committed to protecting the health and safety of our athletes.” The league also recognizes that concussions will happen even when athletes, athletic trainers, and officials are educated about concussion prevention. Women’s hockey is dangerous. Players will get hurt. And that is why it is so imperative that we have consistent, trustworthy, and transparent action from the CWHL Disciplinary Committee. The public wants to know that the league is taking necessary steps to protect its players and enforce its rules.

There were 11 instances of game misconducts and/or major penalties in the 2017-18 CWHL season. There were also several controversial and dangerous plays that did not result in majors or misconducts, or, in some cases, minor penalties. The women’s hockey world took notice. During the season fans, journalists, and players took to social media demanding that the CWHL take player safety more seriously.

The league responded by establishing new Player Safety Guidelines that went into action on Feb. 1, 2018. When The Ice Garden asked for an explanation of these guidelines, the CWHL responded with the following statement.

This new guideline empowered a new CWHL Player Safety Committee (whose members are undisclosed) alongside the already existing CWHL Disciplinary Committee, both of which oversee infractions/appeals. The Disciplinary Committee deals with infractions directly related to the official game sheet and calls made by referees during a game, whereas the Player Safety Committee handles any items submitted by a team which they feel is a danger to player safety. This distinction in the new guidelines was made to better lines of communication and expedite decision-making.

The league would not make a copy of these new guidelines available to The Ice Garden. As it turns out, all CWHL policies and guidelines are categorized as internal documents, including listings of committee members.

It didn’t take long for the CWHLPA to ask the new committee to take a look at a dangerous play that did not result in a suspension or any form of supplementary discipline (as far as we know).

On Jan. 20 at the Thornhill Community Centre, the home rink of the Markham Thunder, Taylor Marchin of the Kunlun Red Star struck Thunder forward Nicole Kosta in the head with her stick. The league does not have archived video of the game available on its site, but .gifs and video clips of the incident exist on social media — and they look pretty damning.

However, despite the CWHLPA’s appeal and the outrage expressed by fans on social media, Marchin played in Kunlun’s next game. Again, the world of women’s hockey took notice.

Major Penalties and Misconduct Penalties from the 2017-18 CWHL Season

  • Nov. 14 | Shiann Darkangelo, Kunlun Red Star | 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Nov. 14 | Sarah Lefort, Les Canadiennes de Montreal | 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Nov. 24 | Stephanie Anderson, Kunlun Red Star | 2 minutes for head contact, 20 minute game misconduct | Archived Stream
  • Dec. 9 | Michelle Saunders, Toronto Furies | 5 minute major for head contact, 20 minute game misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Dec. 9 | Brittany Zuback, Toronto Furies | 5 minute major for spearing | no video publicly available
  • Dec. 17 | Ella Stewart, Toronto Furies | 2 minutes for roughing, 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Dec. 19 | Courtney Turner, Boston Blades | 10 minute misconduct | Archived Stream
  • Jan. 6 | Kristen Barbara, Markham Thunder | 2 minutes for head contact, 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Jan. 21 | Qinan Zhao, Vanke Rays | 2 minutes for body checking, 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Feb. 4 | Jenna Dingeldein, Toronto Furies | 2 minutes for head contact (assigned to Alessandra Bianchi), 10 minute misconduct | no video publicly available
  • Feb. 24 | Jessica Hartwick, Markham Thunder | 5 minute major for boarding | Archived Stream/

Nine of the 11 CWHL players who earned misconducts or majors during the 2017-18 season appeared in their team’s next game. Michelle Saunders and Brittany Zuback missed the Furies’ next two games after their major penalties on Dec. 9, which leads one to believe that they might have been suspended. The same is true of Jessica Hartwick, who did not appear in the Thunder’s next game after riding Hayley Williams of the Toronto Furies into the boards on Feb. 24.

The Ice Garden reached out to the CWHL to inquire whether there were suspensions and/or instances of supplementary discipline in the 2017-18 season. The CWHL responded with the following statement:

There were a number of suspensions and supplementary discipline handed out during the 2017-2018 season.

Communications of this discipline is delivered to all necessary parties (i.e., players, team staff, and officials). Beyond that, CWHL policy dictates we do not disclose disciplinary information.

So, we didn’t hear about any suspensions this season because it is CWHL policy not to disclose them publicly. The league also does not disclose information about instances of supplementary discipline, which it says “can mean warnings or fines.”

There’s no way for us to know whether or not the CWHL’s undisclosed suspensions, warnings, and fines do anything to curb reckless and dangerous plays. However, we do know that there were a number of incidents that occurred after the new Player Safety Guidelines went into effect.

One such incident was a nasty elbow from Karell Emard that took place in Montréal’s final game of the regular season on March 11. Emard did not play in Les Canadiennes’ first game of the playoffs, which suggests that she also likely earned a suspension. Because the incident did not warrant a penalty during the game, it stands to reason that the Player Safety Committee chose to act on Emard throwing her elbow after deeming it a danger to player safety.

So, that is at least two probable suspensions that occurred after the league introduced its new Player Safety Guidelines. One could see that as a sign of the CWHL taking player safety more seriously, but that silver lining is tarnished by how little we know about the decisions made by the CWHL Disciplinary Committee and the new Player Safety Committee. We don’t even know who is on these committees.

The CWHL’s clandestine policies with disciplinary action are problematic. To put it simply, it does not look good when it appears that the CWHLPA’s public request to review a play goes unanswered. It’s a big problem. But unless fans, players, and members of the media demand a change to the league’s stance on not disclosing disciplinary action, nothing is going to change.