Precedent is a curious principle, in NHL law and the real thing. For years, when vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell administered NHL justice, the industry was generally unhappy with his decisions, no matter what the verdict. That's how a heavily partisan organization such as the NHL operates – all black and white, no grey.
On the one hand, the injured parties were never satisfied that the penalty assessed by Campbell fit the crime. On the other hand, the team losing a player to suspension – for one or three or five or eight or 20 games – figured they were getting shafted, made an example of by an overzealous administrator. It was an impossible job, complicated by the nuances and shades that made every incident slightly different from the last one.
Accordingly, when the NHL shifted the way it handled supplementary discipline – as part of a new player safety department unveiled by commissioner Gary Bettman during last year's Stanley Cup final – the one happy byproduct was that all the old precedents could be tossed out.
There was a new judge in town – Brendan Shanahan, only months removed from his playing days – and Shanahan's mandate would be to get tough on crime, and especially head hits, which were causing one player after another to miss significant parts of the season because of concussions.
But now, with the 2011-12 NHL regular season winding down, and with 39 regular-season suspensions already under his belt, Shanahan is more or less bound by his precedents.
So along comes an incident last Wednesday, when the Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith delivers an elbow to the head of the unsuspecting Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin and the penalty is five games.
Of all the videotape reviewed by Shanahan this season, Keith on Sedin looked most like the elbow that Rene Bourque, then of the Calgary Flames, delivered to the head of the Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom months ago. For that incident, Bourque received a five-game ban. Shanahan has established other thresholds – some higher, mostly lower, mostly in the three-game range – but the Keith ban, based on what's happened previously this season, is about right. Judges are supposed to be fair and consistent, after all.
At this stage, Shanahan can't waver too much from the precedents he's set; otherwise, teams would – and should – be up in arms over the unevenness of his rulings.
Ultimately, however, if the NHL is serious about curbing these sorts of blows to the head, the suspensions need to be far more eye-popping. Three games is a slap on the wrist. Five may sting a little more, but Keith will be back in time for playoffs and rested to boot. Make it 10 or higher and the number starts to get everybody's attention – teams, players, owners. That's a significant amount of the season lost – and a big hit in the wallet even if you're earning millions to start.
As a player, Keith plays it fair and square about 99 per cent of the time. Once in a while, though, he sees red, in a big, blooming, lights-go-out way. Something bad happens in a game – to him or to a teammate – and you can see the body language change and he is suddenly out there, on a mission, looking for retaliation. That's what Keith's elbow to Sedin looked like – revenge in a response to an earlier hit from Sedin, not as dangerous, not as premeditated, but still illegal under the rules.
If Keith knew, or thought, he would get 10 games or 20, would he have reacted differently? Who can say? Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, people do stupid things and live with the regret long after the fact.
Nor does it change the fact that the Canucks will be without Sedin for the foreseeable future, until his concussion symptoms subside – whenever that might be.
Bourque, in the midst of his suspension, was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and soon after, returned to play. Backstrom, arguably Washington's second-best player after Alexander Ovechkin, has been out ever since – and has just recently been given clearance to participate in contact scrimmages.
Washington was considered a Stanley Cup contender before the season began. Without Backstrom's presence in the lineup, the Capitals are touch-and-go to make the playoffs, and may miss them altogether. You cannot replace a player of Nicklas Backstrom's calibre, just as you cannot replace a player of Daniel Sedin's calibre. And for Canucks Nation, which sees another long playoff run suddenly in jeopardy, even a 20-game suspension against Keith wouldn't change that inconsolable fact.