On Player Accountability and the Bench



The inevitable struggles of the Calgary Flames will bring on endless articles about coaching, with plenty romanticizing certain styles. Given how bad Calgary will almost certainly be this year, there will be endless words spilled on accountability, and plenty of them coming from the mouth of Bob Hartley, who has a reputation of being a bit hardnosed on the "accountability" thing.


– He’s also typically regarded as a disciplinarian. As one example, former Devils’ coach John MacLean earned some scrutiny after he benched Ilya Kovalchuk for tardiness, but Hartley had done the same thing in Atlanta – locking Kovalchuk out of the locker room after he was late for the Thrashers’ morning skate.


Because there is both implicit and explicit hierarchies that exist on benches and in lockerrooms, "accountability" and discipline tactics certainly do exist and play a role in the management of the roster, often with far more nuance and layers than fans can perceive from the outside.

"Accountability", though (the far more rigid, popular, mythic concept) has developed from the moralization of sports – the sense that athletes are superheroes and therefore should behave as such both on and off of the ice. The media and fans have come this collective idea that athletes should be infallible, and god help them if they aren’t, because the haranguing will never end. This is where "accountability" comes into play. How do you make sure players remain precious little angels? Why, benching them of course.

At least, that’s the common strain of thought. Strangely, Tony Gallagher of The Province has emerged as something of a voice of reason on this concept after new Vancouver hiring John Tortorella preached about accountability.

What are you going to do if these guys repeat mistake after mistake, bench Daniel, Henrik and RK17? To do so weakens your team to a ridiculous level. And how does that affect them? They still get paid, the Sedins, for instance, are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and could walk for nothing if they don’t like the treatment.

Is holding them accountable shouting at them in the locker-room? That’s about the only thing you could do that might make their lives slightly less comfortable. How did such treatment affect Brad Richards last year in New York when he sat out? Did the Rangers suddenly spring to life and win the series, with Richards back on the ice, chastened and “held accountable,” scoring the winning goal? Not that we recall.

Gallagher is 100% correct here, but there’s even more to it than this. The first utterly insane assumption some writers, bloggers, fans, and even coaches make is assuming that for some reason players aren’t trying very hard. There’s this idea that when players aren’t playing well, it’s because they’re just not trying hard enough, darn it all. That they somehow spent a lifetime of working to make it to the NHL level, only to just stop giving a damn when they actually arrived. For the most part, when a player is playing poorly – he’s just playing poorly.

Maybe he didn’t prepare right or maybe the new baby is having a toll on his sleep. Maybe he’s got a pulled leg muscle and is just having trouble keeping up with the skating. A lot of the time, it’s just a bad night. Benching the guy will not fix any one of these. Benching a player won’t focus everything clearly. It won’t heal a banged up body or restore lost sleep. All it will do is keep the player off the ice.

So let’s imagine for a moment that a player is playing "lazy". What, then, is the point of punitive measures? If it’s bad enough they’re an actual negative on the ice, take them off by all means. But don’t do it to punish them— it won’t change a damn thing. Chances are the player is unhappy about something; punishing that player will only make them unhappier. This is hardly a solution.

This isn’t to say that coaches should be all sunshine and rainbows, but there’s better ways to run a strict team than reactionary punishment. Limiting fun times on road trips, instuting harder practices, creating visible and realistic expectations for players are all certainly more effective than stapling stars to the bench.

In short, benching as a punitive measure doesn’t strike me effective. It’s something that should be reserved for player’s whose play is actually detrimental to the team, rather than something used for a perceived lack of effort or skill.

And let’s not pretend that yelling at fully grown men who are more highly skilled than 90% of coaches ever were at hockey (and make more money!) is even remotely effective.

So where does this leave Calgary with a young team? There will certainly be days where the post-game stories are about Hartley tearing into the Flames in the locker room after games, which is all nice and really won’t have a large impact either way. The issue will come when Hartley decides to bench Mikael Backlund or Sven Baertschi due to a perceived lack of effort.

It’s a poor practice to use benching (or even the aforementioned "locking out of the locker room for tardiness") with an established team of established players; it’ll be even worse to try this on young players who need every bit of game time to improve, like the 2013-14 Calgary Flames.

  • beloch

    Every player needs to be handled differently. The most successful coaches are those who know which plaeyrs to coddle and which players to chastise. Some guys respond to getting benched. Some respond to being yelled at, even multi- millionaires.

    At the same time, rules must apply to all. The best rooms are those that practice internal discipline and accountability from the players themselves. The coach shouldn’t have to do it all (or at least rarely).

    Some players do take nights off, so I disagree with that completely. To say that NHLers don’t ‘mail it in’ is silly. One sees it often and blaming it on the baby is the worst cop-out ever. It happens all of the time. Just watching pre-season, regular season and the playoffs shows how many levels of ‘work’ there actually is. Not that players can sustain the highest levels all of the time, but there are certainly some players who are lazier than others. Or those who refuse to play the systems (hi Jarome!).

    However, if the point of the article was to preach that benching young kids is more likely to ruin them than have any effect on the standings, I agree 100%.

    • ChinookArchYYC


      Accountability as a general rule is good, and especially with a young team. They need to learn how to become responsible professionals. Locking a guy out of the room, cause he’s late for a meeting is fine. Screaming and singling a guy out for making a mistake is not normally effective (at least in the long run). I’m not sure you would call the later instilling ‘accountability’, I would describe that as a management style (and a poor one at that).

      I’m still very curious about the Blair Jones demotion. What capital offence was he guilty of for being sent to the AHL? I also wonder how many more players get that kind of treatment, if they upset the head coach?

      • Arik

        Locking a guy out of the room prevents him from practicing and improving though. Far more effective to have him bag skate alone afterwards.

        Or, most effective (as they show in bootcamp) punishing everyone in practice for a single persons offense. Nothing like screwing the whole team over to make sure you think twice about stopping for Starbucks or hitting snooze.

  • Arik

    Teams need to have rules and expectations for player behavior and attitudes. Coaches have a responsibility to understand what rules really matter and how each player responds to. That is why teams have a variety of styles of assistant coaches, the old good cop bad cop approach. Having a player sit the pressbox may actually help their development if is handled correctly and the right time. Veterans can be handled differently than rookies etc, coaches also grow and change overtime. I suspect that Hartley has changed too. Most nights players learn from their mistakes and grow and develop. Not having the power to deal with players as need be leaves the coach powerless and ineffective and I believe that happened with this team in the past with their star player. The system the coach wants must have buy in by all players and I am not sure that has always been the case here. I expect that this team will have far greater compliance to the coaching system than it has had in the past.

  • Demetric

    I think benching is okay if you are going to give them a reason, something to work on or watch while being benched.

    I would also like to know why Blair was sent down.

  • Arik

    One thing I’m deadset against is humiliating (to differentiate from yelling)players. Total backfire every time.

    @Arik, agreed. Punishing everyone for the fault of one seems fine in theory, but rarely works in practice. Or at any job, though my bosses think it’s the solution to everything.

    • Arik

      That’s…the opposite of what I said. In certain settings, it can be fairly effective. I would argue hockey is one, given the “brotherhood” aspect of a team.

    • Arik

      That’s…the opposite of what I said. In certain settings, it can be fairly effective. I would argue hockey is one, given the “brotherhood” aspect of a team.

  • Parallex

    “So where does this leave Calgary with a young team?”

    Easy, instead of benching Hartley will just declare that “Someone smells like Chocolate!”.

    For those that don’t get the reference when Hartley was coach of the Ave’s when a young player wasn’t working up to his standards he’d utter the phrase above… the Aves AHL team being located in Hersey (hence the chocolate reference).

    Pretty sure (at least for the waiver exempt) the threat of making the AHL level of your contract and riding a bus instead of flying by plane ought to provide a good enough incentive to shape up.

    • Arik

      In this case the line should probably be “is someone feeling the Heat”. Also others talked about bag skating the team for an individuals transgressions as part of hockey; the idea is used in almost all sports. It can be used occasionally and should only be used as a last resort. However bag skating or running lines/suicides are a great tool for team conditioning but must be delivered as such, not punishment.

  • The Last Big Bear

    Also, I’d just like to point out that the thumbs up/down system is a nice addition.

    But it seems that while the majority of posters here are perfectly reasonable, it seems the voters giving thumbs up and down consist mainly of impulsive and vindictive chimpanzees clicking posts at random.

    Seriously, the consensus of thumbs up/down voters is absolutely baffling.

    Maybe this is just an early-days growing pain.

  • Bag skate the whole team. Military minds have been using pack dynamics and peer pressure to ostracize sore thumbs into being team players for thousands of years. I don’t know what the bar-of-soap-in-the-sock equivalent is in the NHL, but I bet it works.

    Real good article Arik. An interesting can of worms…

  • beloch

    Playing badly and acting badly are two different things. In a normal job, if somebody is abusing his coworkers and generally making life hell, you fire him. It doesn’t matter if he’s brilliant. If he can’t work well with others he’s worse than useless.

    It’s different if the guy is a star NHL player signed to a big contract who would have to pass waivers to be sent down. What can you do to this kind of guy? If he’s convinced that scoring 80 points a season entitles him to treat everyone around him like garbage, what do you do?

    There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that we don’t see as fans, but hockey players are human and with that comes the fact that some of then are scumbags, and some get out of control when success and wealth go to their heads. No GM wants it getting out that his star player is a total asshole because that would deep-six his trade value right when trading him looks like a really great idea.

    When I see a star sitting, that says to me the problems go way beyond poor performance on the ice or showing up late to practice. The official word in these situations is always going to be something vague, such as the player “lacking accountability”. It’s okay if the coach looks like the bad guy. Nobody worries about the trade value of coaches. If the public thinks the player is being victimized, that only makes him look more heroic when he bounces back.

    In short, GMs and coaches aren’t idiots and star players don’t get benched without a very good reason. They’re just reasons us fans aren’t supposed to think about.

  • beloch

    Playing badly and acting badly are two very different things.

    Players are human. That means some of them are jerks. All of them have to deal with unusual amounts of wealth and success, both of which tend to exacerbate the baser qualities of men. It’s a safe bet that there is some very poor behavior going on behind the scenes. We’re not supposed to see this as fans, of course, because it’s absolute poison to ticket sales! For example, on this site, Iginla was pilloried in absentia by many for not tweet’ing his concern after the flood! Fans get ugly fast at the slightest sign of behavior that deviates from angelic.

    In a normal workplace, if, despite being told to shape up, somebody continues to make life miserable for everyone at the company you fire that somebody. It doesn’t matter if the person is freakin’ brilliant. An employee who can’t work well with others is worse than useless. NHL GM’s often don’t have this option when dealing with star players signed to big contracts who would have to pass wavers to go to the minors. So what do you do with a problem player when both reason and harsh language have failed?

    When I see a star player being benched I strongly suspect the reasons go a lot deeper than poor performance on the ice. As others have observed, it makes no sense to sit a first-liner who, when he’s performing badly, is still a lot better than any of your fourth-liners! No GM is going to let it get out that a star is being benched for bad behavior. Not only does it rile up the fan-base, it lowers the player’s trade value right when trading him is looking like a good idea! People ask questions though, and failing to play in an “accountable” fashion is as good a vague reason to give as any.

    It’s perfectly fine if the GM and coaches come out looking unreasonable or mean. You don’t need to worry about their trade-value and the public is happy so long as the players are heroes. As for the player, once he returns to the ice and overcomes his “persecution”, he’ll just look that much more heroic if he plays well.

    In short, benching star players is not as pointless as most think and will continue to happen as long as NHL players remain human. I only hope it won’t be necessary for the Flames to do this any time soon.

    P.S. The fact that Kovalchuk has been benched twice by two different coaches for “being late” says a lot. We’re not talking about getting stuck in traffic late here. That’s as savage an indictment of a player’s character as you’re ever likely to hear in the NHL. We should be thankful he’s not a Flame!

  • RedMan

    iggy only playd half the ice for at least the last three years… when sutter suggested he needed to play defensively, iggy dissagreed and said he was responsible for scoring goals.
    what should the coach have done? bench, bag skate or what????

    • Arik

      And you don’t think Sutter, Keenan and Playfair all wanted to deal with Iggy, the issue was much higher than the coach in this case. Coaches need to have the authority to do what they believe is right for the god of the team and also the good of the player. Hopefully Hartley has been given this power ( he should as no one on this team is that important)

  • Arik


    With the roster changes we have made, I think it will be a much easier group to ‘coach’ as I agree that we don’t have any stars left to coddle. I think the excitement level in the Dome when they open the season will be higher than it has been in years. Just a breath of fresh air kind of feeling…..

    I’m also afraid we’ll get our ass handed to us on many nights. However, this roster turnover was necessary and we are on the right track. Hopefully the track isn’t too long, and hopefully there isn’t a train coming the other way on it.

    • T&A4Flames

      Not a problem. I expected somewhere someone would get it confused. But your bang on when you say there is no one left to coddle and that is a good thing. We get our butts served to us a few times but I expect that it will be because of effort as I expect hartley will have this guys playing hard.

  • T&A4Flames

    Creating a team dynamic where players are accountable to each other, IMO is the most effective way to keep disciplined players. Having a bag skate the day after a player or 2 played “lazy” and every other player knows which players are responsible for that, is a quick way to have the culprits feel guilty and not do something that hurts fellow players again.

  • RedMan

    if coaching wan’t the problem (when Iggy was coasting and cherry picking) but powers above the coach (& presumably above the GM?) were the problem… then what is our hope for change? does that mean different faces, same crap?
    Can we infer any hope that the addition of deph in the management, coaching and development staff signals a change of phylosophy by whomever WAS the real problem?

    • beloch

      The problem i think was the love affair between Iggy and ownership; maybe with no Iggy the higher ups will let the hockey people be hockey people. Gosh, it sounds like the the soap opera of the Maple Leafs when old Harold Ballard was alive (when I was Leaf fan and I could not cheer for those dreaded Habs)

  • please cancel acct

    Sure would be nice if ownership proclaimed that they have no part in decisions made at the GM level and below.

    That in itself would be refreshing.