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Brendan Shanahan tasked with solving NHL's concussion woes

NHL vice president of hockey and business development Brendan Shanahan speaks to reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010.


When it comes to his new job, a cross-section of NHL people all say there is one thing Brendan Shanahan will need more than any other.

"You have to have a thick skin," said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, now a consultant with the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Thick skin, small ears and the ability to bark back at people," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who preceded Shanahan's predecessor, Colin Campbell, as the NHL's lord of discipline.

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When the 2011-12 season starts, Shanahan, 42, will be the new sheriff in town, after Campbell relinquished his role as chief disciplinarian. Campbell will still be the NHL's director of hockey operations with Shanahan as the head of a new department of player safety. Shanahan's title is senior vice-president of player safety and hockey operations, and he will be the head of the player safety committee, which is comprised of a group of former players of Shanahan's vintage: Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Rob Blake. The committee will work with the NHL Players' Association to improve player safety in all areas from equipment to minimizing concussions.

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman signalled a new approach toward player suspensions with Shanahan's appointment, which most took to mean a more severe approach to the brutal hits that plague the sport, the old hands around the league think Shanahan will find the job, and most of all the notoriety, to be hardly different than what Campbell experienced in his 13 years in the position.

If recent history is any indicator , every decision will still set off a raging controversy. Some will last mere days but many, like the uproar when Campbell did not suspend Matt Cooke for a hit in March 2010 that left Marc Savard concussed and still unable to play, will boil for months and years.

Burke said when he became the director of hockey operations in 1993, Bettman warned him what to expect. "You think you're ready. Then the first one happens. The media is screaming at you, both teams are screaming at you. You have no idea how loud the volume gets turned up on the big ones," Burke said.

Shanahan, who did not want to be interviewed until he officially takes over his new duties later this week, has not indicated in detail how he plans to approach his job. At the press conference to announce his appointment a few weeks ago, he said he planned to take a collaborative approach, consulting others as Campbell always did. He also soothed the fears of the old-school types who worry that hitting will be driven out of the game by a heavy-handed reaction to the rash of concussions that came when the game became faster and wide-open.

"I think it's important to state that I do love the physical aspect of hockey," Shanahan said at the time. "It's a very difficult and fine balance to keep that in the game.

"But I can't promise you what was once a three [-game suspension]is now a seven. I think that it's all going to be individual."

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As a player, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Shanahan was a bruising power forward who could score (656 goals in 1,524 games). His friends aren't sure how that will guide his approach to a game that needs intervention on the dangerous hits but they know he is well-equipped to handle the job.

During the 2004-05 lockout, Shanahan showed he had an interest in the game beyond playing when he organized a symposium of hockey people to study the problems of what was then a dull game afflicted with hooking, holding and other methods of slowing down star players. The conclusions of that session helped spur the reforms that made today's game far more entertaining.

"I think he will carve his own path in his own style," Nieuwendyk said. "Probably, everybody is expecting him to come in and have more of an iron fist and that may happen. He's really smart at analyzing a lot of plays. He really understands what guys are thinking. He'll see through all the b.s. he'll get at the [discipline]hearings."

With the collective agreement set to expire next year, a new approach may be legislated for Shanahan. Campbell did his job strictly from a management perspective. But the NHLPA wants to be part of the process and may get it through collective bargaining, which should work out since Shanahan says he has a good relationship with the union.

"He's probably coming in at a good time," Bowman said. "He gets along with people very well."

Bowman and Shanahan won three Stanley Cups together from 1997 to 2002 when they were with the Detroit Red Wings. The former coach is not surprised Shanahan wound up in his current position.

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"He was a thinker," Bowman said. "He knew how to play the game. He knew what made teams work. I think he'll have common sense in that job."

However, Bowman says a tough approach will be needed. Hockey is at a crossroads because of the concussion issue, he said, and the only solution to such issues over the years has been harsher punishment.

"When I first started [coaching] bench-clearing brawls were the big issue and they made the rules so tough they went away," Bowman said. "I think that's what you have to do.

"Now it will be a big test for him."

But one Bowman and others who know Shanahan think he can handle.

"He's an astute guy and he played the game the right way," Burke said. "If he can listen to the baying of the hounds and not be influenced, I think he'll be the perfect choice."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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