Brendan Shanahan did not create the weekend’s Stanley Cup freak show. He’s just one of many enablers.
You can start with governors, general managers and head coaches who employ and ice the meatheads and create a culture where it’s okay to target the head of a player who has missed time with a concussion. They are foremost among the enablers and abettors. Look, too, at commissioner Gary Bettman, whose silence proves again that he follows a financial compass, not a moral compass, and fans apparently dig this stuff.
But it’s also on the players themselves, who have shown yet again that they are incapable of self-policing. These guys want to have it both ways; let us take care of the high-sticking and nefarious stuff, they say, yet at the same time anybody who does deliver a clean hit ends up getting pummelled. If you’re going to get jumped by Kevin Bieksa, whatever you do, why not aim for the head?
Conventional wisdom among the hockey intelligentsia is that this all started with the light $2,500 fine that Shanahan levied against the Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber for attempting to grind the head of the Detroit Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg into the boards in Game 1 of their series. That would be in keeping with the excuse-making that has become a staple of NHL culture.
Seriously, for a league that likes to sell itself as a straight-ahead, straight-up bunch of good guys with a common touch who’d play the game for nothing but a cold beer and the odd hot puck-bunny, the NHL is remarkable for its ability to make up grey areas at every turn. The NHL is played and run by excuse-makers, in part because it is an intellectually inbred league where agents and general managers go fishing together and where unwritten rules support bizarre, cultish off-ice behaviour.
That’s one reason why Donald Fehr’s appointment as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association was such a shock. Unbelievably, a guy who was never asked to take part in a hazing ritual as a junior hockey player was allowed behind the curtain. What’s up with that?
Those of you with initial misgivings about whether Shanahan is up to the job of chief disciplinarian, give yourself a hearty pat on the back. Turns out a guy who rolled up more than 2,700 penalty minutes in regular-season and playoff games, is not the best person to be handing out discipline, especially when lives – let alone careers – are at stake.
If the game really has become faster and players are bigger and stronger – and it surely has – then it’s time for the NHL to catch up, and as was the case when Colin Campbell didn’t see why it was such a big deal that he was meting out discipline in a league in which his son played, it is time to look outside the existing puckhead gene pool to find a chief disciplinarian.
It’s easy to get rid of fighting if you really want to; fight and you’re gone for the remainder of the game. That way, the couch potatoes would still get their jollies from spontaneous fights, although maybe not with as much frequency. That, plus a zero-tolerance policy on any hit above the shoulder or from behind, and you’d have fairly rapid culture change.
But absent the inability to grasp that easy answer, the least the NHL can do is give the inmates a new warden. How about a panel of individuals with no NHL affiliation past or present, and if that means lawyers or retired judges and a doctor, well, that’s fine. Bring in people with legal training who understand evidence and know how to deliver a clear judgment, or at least somebody smart enough to not link the length of suspension with the severity of the resulting injury, as Shanahan did in an interview in New York City on Monday.
In 1975, Bobby Hull staged a strike because he was angered by the treatment Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg received from their peers in the World Hockey Association at a particularly bloody time in that league’s history, but who in the NHL has the guts to stand up and say enough is enough? Nobody, which is exactly the way Bettman wants it. He’d rather hire somebody to make excuses than bring about change, because that’s the NHL way.