The man who ruined more than a few little hockey players’ hopes on all-star weekend admits to making mistakes.
But not this time.
Brendan Shanahan – known formally as NHL vice-president of hockey and business development, and head disciplinarian, and informally, for those unable to take deep breaths, as “Sheriff Shanny” – is the one who suspended Alexander Ovechkin three games for a shot to the head of the Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Zbynek Michalek.
The result was that the Washington Capitals superstar – first in the heart and dreams of small children – acted childishly himself in response, claiming he didn’t “deserve” to come to Ottawa for the NHL all-star festivities, but deserved instead a few days romping in the Florida sunshine.
Shanahan says Ovechkin was dealt with properly and fairly, and while some might argue he should have been given more punishment, just as some say less, it would be hard to find anyone in the hockey world who would say Ovechkin deserved no suspension at all and a right to romp in the freezing rain and snow pellets that distinguish the Rideau Canal from South Beach.
“I think I respect it,” Shanahan says of Ovechkin’s decision to disappoint his young fans. “That situation was unique. I don’t think it’s ever happened before. I think it’s something that internally we need to address and come up with something in the future. … What is our policy on that?”
Commissioner Gary Bettman likes to say the franchise fiasco in Phoenix is “a work in progress,” but so, too, is NHL policy on what to do about head shots such as the one Ovechkin delivered on Michalek and concussions, such as the one that has kept Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin’s only rival with young fans, effectively out of the game for more than a year.
Shanahan concedes he suffers from “some imperfection, yeah” in doing his difficult job. “But,” he says with a smile, “I wasn’t perfect as a player, either.”
He was close, though: a power forward who scored 656 goals and 698 assists in 1,524 games, a member of the exclusive “Triple Gold” club with an Olympic gold medal, a world championship and a Stanley Cup. He also had on-the-job training for the role he now has: 2,489 penalty minutes, plus another 280 in playoff action and more than a few disciplinary discussions with head office.
There have been times over the past four months of dealing in hockey discipline, he says in appropriate language, where “I’d like to have that breakaway back.”
“What I say to the players is ‘Look, we’d all like to have perfect seasons. Your coach would like to have a perfect season. Your [general manager]would love to never make a mistake on a signing. And I would love to have a perfect season and I won’t.’ I won’t have a perfect season, but I strive for that.”
There are moments that he says have been “just not our best day at the office.” The odd suspension might appear “glaringly high or glaringly low” and any debate can lead to a great deal of discussion between Shanahan’s office and team GMs. He says when the debate is over whether a player should get two or three or four or five games, it is a healthy debate. A serious problem would be where one side is at zero and the other at 10.
But he says it is all – the suspensions, the explanations, the video – having the desired effect. He sees the game as suitably physical but hits are down in number.
“We had like 45,000 hits and at the end of year, we’re down to 40,000 now. I just hope that those 5,000 are what we want to get rid of.”
He also cites two specific examples of what he sees as progress. First, would be Matt Cooke, previously the NHL’s poster boy for head shots. This year, Cooke, a forward with the Penguins, has been mild-mannered by comparison, picking up few penalties and becoming known more for his play than his suspensions.
“If he comes up on a hit that’s 50-50,” Shanahan says, speaking of a check that is on the edge of being a dirty or clean, “he knows, [Pittsburgh GM]Ray Shero knows, [head coach]Dan Bylsma knows, he’s not going to be taking that hit.”
According to Shanahan, prior to the start of the season, Cooke came to New York to meet with him and discuss how he might clean up his on-ice act and still be a physical presence out there. He has seriously tried to change, Shanahan says, while certain other repeat offenders just don’t seem to get it.
Shanahan’s second example is Zac Rinaldo, a feisty and oft-penalized forward with the Philadelphia Flyers. Shanahan says Rinaldo has been told by his coaches and GM to think a little better about what he is doing. If he sees the chances of 20 hits during a game, “Take your best three – you’ll still be that physical presence out there.”
“When I hear coaching like that,” Shanahan says, “that’s when I know there’s full ‘buy’ out there. But it’s going to take time. Humbly I say that. We are doing our very best. I don’t believe in just being completely unforgiving. We play. We know that things happen quickly, that emotions run high.
“I don’t believe we are in the business of punishing. Hopefully, we are in the business of changing.”