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NHL Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell fields questions from reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
NHL Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell fields questions from reporters during the NHL General Managers' annual fall meeting in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, November 9, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

David Shoalts

Colin Campbell glad to be out of NHL firing line Add to ...

Thirteen years and $15.3-million (all currency U.S.) in fines and forfeited salary (he kept track) after Colin Campbell became the NHL's sheriff, he is leaving that part of his job with no regrets.

"No, none at all," Campbell, 58, said shortly before the Stanley Cup final ended. "It takes stamina and energy to do this and it wears away after 13 years. Sometimes the tank gets empty and you have to sit back and take a run at something else."

Regrets are for the critics and there is no shortage of them where Campbell is concerned. Most of them are media people or fans of teams whose players were sidelined by a Campbell decision before he gave up the duties of issuing supplementary discipline for incidents on the ice.

Their biggest complaint is a lack of consistency in Campbell's decisions. Why, to cite a recent example, did Vancouver Canucks forward Raffi Torres escape a suspension for hitting Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook behind the net when more than a year earlier Anaheim Ducks defenceman James Wisniewski received eight games for a hit on the same victim in the same general area?

This view on consistency, however, is not shared by those who employ Campbell or those whose players were subject to his rulings. Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was Campbell's predecessor as the NHL's senior executive vice-president of hockey operations. He dismisses the critics as "people who don't understand the game and particularly don't understand the role of supplementary discipline."

"The GMs are not troubled by that," Burke said. "What the public sees as inconsistent, we believe there is consistency and predictability.

"We see the super [slow-motion]shots, we see the play 20 times. We understand one incident came in a 5-1 game and [the victim]speared [the perpetrator]in the groin in the first period and another one came in a 3-2 game where there was no score to even up and it was just a hit gone awry."

Burke, St. Louis Blues president John Davidson and Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk all said they feel Campbell's decisions were consistent with NHL rules, including Rule 48, the one that outlaws blind-side hits to the head and which will probably be changed to ban all hits to the head later this summer. The problem is, they say, fans do not understand that hockey may be a brutal sport at times but it is also a subtle one in that no single play is exactly like another one.

Torres, for example, escaped a suspension because Campbell ruled the hit did not come from the blind side, the puck was in play and Seabrook should have seen him coming. But when Wisniewski hit him, Seabrook had no chance to see the hit coming, the puck was nowhere around and Wisniewski, a repeat offender, was also avenging an earlier hit Seabrook put on his teammate Corey Perry. Plus, he took a run of several metres into Seabrook.

"There are so many second-guessers who don't understand the job," said Davidson, who has known Campbell since they both played in the NHL in the 1970s and 1980s. "He would probably make a couple decisions here and there different if he had to do it over again because nobody does a perfect job.

"But I'm sure when he went to bed at night, he could sleep because he put a lot of thought into his research and memory and reasoning."

Burke simply says if Campbell was as bad at his job as the critics said he would not have had it long.

"Do you not think, as a group, us general managers do not have enough clout that we could get [Campbell]replaced if we thought he was dropping the ball?" Burke said. "We believe in this guy."

Campbell's role as chief disciplinarian unfairly obscured the fact he was an innovator for a game that needed it badly as the 2004-05 lockout approached. Along with his right-hand man Mike Murphy, and with input from a symposium organized by then Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan, Campbell introduced the rule changes and new approach that made the NHL game much faster and more entertaining.

If Campbell is guilty of anything, it might be a lack of discretion. A furor erupted last November when e-mails Campbell sent the NHL's former director of officiating, Stephen Walkom, slamming Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard as a "fake artist" and criticizing a call against his son Gregory, a Bruins forward, became public. Since Campbell already faced conflict-of-interest accusations about his son, which did not go away when it was revealed he did not make any rulings involving the Bruins, another controversy broke out.

But Davidson has no concerns about the validity of Campbell's decisions. "His work has been full of integrity. Those who don't know him, who rail on about the lack of integrity, don't know their butts from their elbows when it comes to Colie Campbell," Davidson said.

Campbell says the storms seem to be coming faster these days, probably because the game changed to emphasize speed and "with speed you get more injuries." He disagrees with Davidson about how well he slept after every decision.

Suspending or fining a player, he said, was just as tough as the decisions he used to make as an NHL head coach about cutting players or sending them down to the minor leagues.

"There were lots of days when you couldn't do anything except sit there and have the decision weigh on you," he said. "The big decisions were easy, the ones where guys skated and suckered somebody or hurt people. It was the little ones that were the tough ones.

"The decision itself was always tough when you care. They are all tough decisions because you affect players' lives. But it's like managers and coaches. Their job is to win, not to be popular. It always wore on you but in the summer you kind of regrouped and went back at it."

Burke laughed when it was mentioned Campbell had the most thankless job in hockey.

"Thankless would be an upgrade for that job," he said. "This is a job where you are attacked for every single thing you do. I lasted five years; I have no idea how Colie lasted 13."

Those who know him say the job aged Campbell prematurely and he looks far more refreshed in the few weeks since he cut the role as judge and jury from his portfolio.

Campbell says at some point, if there is the right offer, he might look at becoming a team's GM or even head coach. Right now, he notes, he is "on vacation."

"He deserves a chance to watch hockey games and not sweat his way through like I used to and pray there's nothing where you've got to suspend a guy," Burke said. "And he should enjoy watching his son play in the NHL. [Campbell]hasn't been able to do that."

The latter turned out spectacularly this week when the Bruins came back to win the Stanley Cup. There, on CBC Television, was Gregory Campbell being interviewed among the celebrating Bruins along with his beaming father.

A few days earlier, the elder Campbell showed 13 years in the NHL's pressure-cooker did not ruin his sense of humour. At the end of the interview he said he planned to "have a beer" and watch that evening's game in the Cup final from the seats instead of his usual perch high in the arena surrounded by video screens.

"I hope those guys upstairs don't screw it up, though."

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