It was May 31 of last year, on the opening day of the Stanley Cup final, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced a bold change in the way the league would administer supplementary discipline.
Colin Campbell, at his own request, was out as the league’s chief disciplinarian. Brendan Shanahan, recently retired, was in as the newly appointed senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations.
This was a significant change and Bettman spoke at length about what he hoped to accomplish by changing the hierarchy at NHL headquarters, but it all boiled down to a single sentence.
According to Bettman, “In this revised role, Brendan will be responsible for developing rules related to better protecting our players without changing the fundamental nature of our game, dealing with equipment and safety issues related to equipment, and pursuant to a request made by Colin Campbell, Brendan will administer commissioner supplemental discipline.”
As all hell broke loose in the opening 10 days of the 2012 playoffs, it is prudent to go back to the beginning and closely analyze the mandate Bettman set out for the new player safety department.
One of the key phrases speaks to change of command. Shanahan’s job is to administer “commissioner supplemental discipline.” Think about what that means. Shanahan isn’t making it up as he goes long, which is what a lot of people seem to think. He is acting on behalf of the commissioner of the NHL. When he fines the Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber $2,500 for bonking Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards, or suspends the Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres indefinitely, pending an in-person hearing, he is administering “commissioner supplemental discipline.”
Bettman said as much Friday, in an appearance at the Associated Press Sports Editors Conference in New York, defending the Weber decision: “It was a clear statement that what he did was wrong. I have pretty high confidence in Brendan Shanahan — having been on the ice recently and the type of player he was — he knows exactly what took place there and how big a deal it was. ... Whether or not it was the maximum fine or a one-game suspension hardly has anything to do with any of the other things we're talking about.”
The first hint that Shanahan would eventually become an NHL power broker came during the 2004-05 lockout when, in the 18th year of a 22-year playing career, he organized a two-day conference that brought together players, coaches and managers to discuss ways of improving the game. The resultant recommendations in what was unofficially known as the Shanahan Summit became the foundation for rule changes coming out of the lockout designed to eliminate obstruction.
Shanahan retired in November of 2009 and joined the league a month later as its vice president of hockey and business development, a portfolio that required him to address both business and playing issues. About 18 months later, he succeeded Campbell.
Shanahan played on three Stanley Cup championship teams (1997, 1998 and 2002) and finished his career as the only player in history with 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes, an uncommon blend of skill and toughness. One of the most coveted unofficial achievements in hockey is called the Gordie Howe hat trick, named for the legendary Red Wings' Hall of Famer, in which a player earns a goal, an assist and has a fight in the same game. Unofficially, Shanahan had 17 in his career, which is thought to be the most in NHL history.
In his current role, Shanahan is like any judge in any jurisdiction in the known democratic world. It is not up to him to make up the laws. Legislative bodies handle that. Shanahan’s job is to administer the law as written.
All of which circles us back to the second salient point in Bettman’s manifesto: That the goal is to better protect players, without fundamentally changing the game.
Is it even possible to do the former – better protect players – without first doing the latter – fundamentally changing the game? You’d have to argue that the recent evidence suggests no, they can’t – and that frankly, they don’t even want to.
The sad truth is that while better protecting players is a nice goal in theory, not enough of the movers and shakers in the NHL want to do it at the expense of fundamentally changing the game, which is what it’s going to take to make it happen. For proof, you don’t need to look any further than how the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals both issued strenuous objections to the three- and one-game suspensions handed out to their players, Carl Hagelin and Nicklas Backstrom, respectively. Why so much outrage? Because, as nice as it is to pretend to care about the health of the injured parties – Daniel Alfredsson and Rich Peverley – the greater issue from their perspective was that key players were lost out of their line-ups at a critical time of year.