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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, listens as then-Detroit Red Wings player Brendan Shanahan answers questions during a news conference announcing the end of the lockout Friday, July 22, 2005. (JULIE JACOBSON/JULIE JACOBSON/AP)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, listens as then-Detroit Red Wings player Brendan Shanahan answers questions during a news conference announcing the end of the lockout Friday, July 22, 2005. (JULIE JACOBSON/JULIE JACOBSON/AP)

Eric Duhatschek

NHL discipline isn't just about Shanahan Add to ...

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.

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