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.
Maybe they'd feel differently in the clear light of an off-season day, but for now, the Rangers and Capitals care more about advancing to the next round of the playoffs than dealing with the larger macro issue of player safety. That needs to change.
The fundamental problem here is that mayhem is all in the eye of the beholder. Something Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter said this week explains a lot about the slow pace of change in the NHL.
Sutter was asked how the current level of "violence" compared to his playing era (1979 to 1987) and he gave an unexpected response. The current era, answered Sutter, is far, far tamer and much less violent than when he played.
The old days featured line brawls; bench-clearing incidents; coaches and players going into the stands after fans; and fights galore. Every team dressed multiple players who were embarrassingly unqualified to play hockey at the NHL level, but were there because they could brawl. Every rivalry worth its salt – Battle of Alberta, Battle of Quebec, Rangers-Islanders, Flyers-anybody – could rattle off a top-10 list of out-of-control games that far exceeded last Sunday's Pittsburgh-Philadelphia game for sheer violence. In one particular game – Game 7, 1984, the Oilers Mark Messier put three Calgary Flames players in the hospital. Naturally, Messier was the admired conquering hero that night.
Sutter's current portfolio is as the Kings' coach, but he was an NHL general manager for eight years and his views reflect what a significant percentage (not all) GMs honestly believe – that the league has taken many progressive steps to get in line with changing public sensibilities and that the danger of going too far is a game without any hits at all.
Ultimately, general managers are in charge of the rules and so it is their collective reluctance to change the culture of the league that is the root of the problem. But what if the starting point was the competition committee and not the GMs? First, it would give the players a voice at the very start of the process, which is what a handful of them – from the Kings' Mike Richards to the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews – apparently want. Such a shift would need to be collectively bargaining in the next CBA by the NHL players association, and the players would need to be advised at the outset that increased power would also accompany greater responsibility too.
If they're interested only in protecting jobs of the fringe players, then nothing's going to change either. That's often the conundrum, the need for the NHLPA to be there, supporting Torres when he's on the carpet, which indirectly, makes it seem that they're tacitly ignoring the interests of the player carted off the ice on a stretcher because of Torres's actions, the Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa.
That will take some courage, and some thought too, but since negotiations on a new CBA won't even start until the end of the playoffs, they have lots of time to draft a position paper on that.
If you involved players, however, you might get the sort of smart input offered up by the Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin twice in the last three weeks. Sedin's point is that you can suspend the Duncan Keiths of the world for as many games as you want and it wouldn't have the same effect as massively penalizing a player for an egregious infraction right on the spot. And he isn't talking about piddly two-minute minors or even five-minute majors.
Make it a penalty with teeth. Make the offending team play shorthanded for 10 minutes at a time, or more even, if the penalty fit the crime. That way it would have a significant impact, right in the moment, on the team that made the dangerous play – and would likely cause it to lose the game.
In Sedin's mind, nothing will get players, coaches and GMs all on the same page as the prospect of losing (see Rangers, Capitals above). Because fundamentally the problem for Sutter and Torres and a host of others is that the ethic of their playing days is firmly engrained in their characters. They stubbornly and honestly believe hockey should continue to be played a certain way – with players permitted to hold each other accountable on the ice. Torres is from that school too and believes that if he changes anything, he'll be out of the league.
Well guess what? If the Penguins' Matt Cooke can change, anybody can – and if they can't, well, then too bad, they should be out of the league. But it has to require a fundamental re-think of the disciplinary process, so that the on-ice penalties become so significant for players targeting the head, that it just becomes too prohibitive for teams to employ those sorts of players. They would go the way of the 1970s style enforcers, who disappeared – unlamented – from the NHL landscape.