This decision is so easy, not even Brendan Shanahan can screw it up.
Raffi Torres will practically be wrapped in a ribbon and a bow when he shows up at the NHL’s headquarters in New York on Friday after yet again putting another peer out of the game, this time sending the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa to hospital on a stretcher on Tuesday night.
The NHL head office – particularly Shanahan, the vice-president of hockey operations and business development – has been exposed during these Stanley Cup playoffs as a group incapable of dealing with the career-threatening turn that some of their games have taken. Taking solace from the fact that none of its corporate sponsors have fled – yet – and that its television fan base (particularly in Canada) is complicit in overlooking what is happening under its very nose, the NHL has decided it’s better to ride the wave until some sort of civil action forces players and owners to make the necessary changes.
Colin Campbell gets smoked out of his bunker every now and then to take a few shots for the boys, but for the most part commissioner Gary Bettman seeks refuge with the striped-suit set while Shanahan sits in front of his Ouija board and hopes he can find an excuse or two from doctors’ reports to not suspend players who are – like every NHL player – simply good guys who got a little carried away. Who among us, eh Shanny?
There is a dying of the light aspect to the plaintive defences offered by the likes of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who hasn’t realized yet that people in this city don’t want to hear from him until he’s ready to utter the words “with the fifth pick in this year’s NHL draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs select … ”
NHL players are bigger and faster and stronger and stoked on god knows what, to the point that the NHL’s decision-making apparatus has been left in the game’s wake. Fighting is eventually going to revert to becoming the one-off it is in most professional sports leagues as opposed to a staple of marketing, so let its proponents have their few final pulls on the bell rope.
Shanahan’s playoffs have been a bust since he turtled in making a decision on Shea Weber’s flight of UFC fancy in Game 1 of the Nashville-Detroit series. Since then it’s been a travelling freak show of late hits, scrums and head shots targeting both elite players and the odd mediocrity, too.
Shanahan has been back-pedalling most of the time, waiting days to make decisions in the hope that he can come up with another grey area, then popping up in his quasi-legal video explanations – what next, a Shanny hologram? – to explain himself. He has been all over the map, which is not entirely his fault; again, he does not possess the skill set to follow a pattern of evidence and render judgment. Shanahan’s approach is the same it’s always been in the NHL office: try to see things from the point of view of the player committing the offence. It’s easy for him to put himself in that player’s skates, because in some ways he once was that player.
So along comes Torres, a recidivist on a rogue team that most in the NHL wish would disappear from the desert and relocate to a legitimate hockey market. Bettman keeps coming up with make-believe owners for the Coyotes (speaking of holograms), but there is nobody willing to fight for that franchise.
So there are ample reasons for Shanahan to make a case out of Torres and keep his indefinite suspension indefinite. You’ll hear the usual greying of the matter by the puckheads – Hossa was turning into the play, Torres was bracing himself, the usual rubbish – and some will mutter about precedent. You want precedent for Torres? Here’s a precedent: the transformation of Matt Cooke, which shows you can rewire the meatheads, if they’re open to it.
Here is a chance for Shanahan to put down some parameters at a time when some of the brighter lights in the league – such as Jonathan Toews – wonder whether everything Shanahan has tried to do this year has been washed away. Here, then, is a chance for a quick fix, a tough, determined stop-gap message to would-be miscreants until the matter can be dealt with in collective bargaining. The net’s wide open for Shanahan. He can throw the book at a guy nobody will miss on a team nobody cares about. Think he’s up to it?