Brendan Shanahan's flip-floppy management of the NHL's suspensions has been embarrassing, but to be fair he's not the only one to blame.
Brendan Shanahan, back when he was still cool.
Like Nicholas Cage, the NHL’s handling of supplemental discipline has been a joke for a decade. At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, new “head disciplinarian” Brendan Shanahan was supposed to change all that with his shiny new streaming video meant to explain what constitutes a suspension(yay, new media transparency!) while promoting his merciless wielding of the “Shanaban Hammer.”
Shanahan’s tenure at the helm of the Office of Player Safety—yes the name of that institution should make you think of Robespierre—got off to a mostly good start, and the harsh suspensions and succinct explanations flowed.
For a brief, fleeting moment it seemed like a new day of consistency and transparency was at hand. Then of course Shanahan was neutered by the NHL’s respective General Managers, was feckless and arbitrary in his first postseason, and just had probably his worst week on the job. So we’re back to square one pretty much—with the only difference being that this time the cries of “conflict of interest” are unfounded, whereas with Shanahan’s predecessor Colin Campbell they were airtight.
Before we delve into this too much further, allow me a digression. One year when I was in high school—and I should mention here that I attended a posh, vapid private school in West Vancouver during my formative years—the school administrators decided to crack down on uniform violations. They instituted a thing called “Scruff Hall,” which was a uniform specific type of detention and hired the lovely rugby coach to be the chief disciplinarian in charge of containing the proliferation of scruffiness in the school’s hallways.
The rugby coach was pretty much responsible for walking around with a clipboard and occasionally yelling at spoiled kids about the droop of their pants or the length of their skirt. The thing about this teacher is that, unlike some of the domineering weirdos who’d enjoy that sort of position (and we’ve all met a few), he was basically a good dude. But responsibility morphed him from a cheery gym teacher who got off on happily mocking nerds (like myself) for a flubbed catch: “hands like feet!” into a scowling curmudgeon with worry lines forming fast on his forehead.
I bring this up because Brendan Shanahan is, by all accounts, a respected, intelligent, and honorable guy. But he also has the toughest and most soul-crushing job in hockey. He’s basically the NHL’s judge, jury and executioner and even though he’s a smart guy with a surplus of integrity, he’s making a bit of a mess of it.
So let’s review what happened last week. This play was a two game suspension:
Even though this wasn’t a suspension last season:
So you can forgive guys like Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul when he tweets out something like this:
The thing about Shanahan being a smart guy in a tough spot rears its head again now. After all, his explanation (as told to Puck Daddy) for not suspending Rick Nash and suspending Joffrey Lupul basically makes sense:
“It’s like a slashing minor, a slashing major and a slashing suspension. It’s the same thing as leaving your feet on a hit. When it rises to a suspension is when a player is in control of your hit; when we see a predatorial play and make significant contact with a player’s head.”
Joffrey Lupul’s hit struck Victor Hedman’s cranium quite clearly, while arguably Rick Nash’s hit doesn’t. That’s a pretty critical distinction and with what we’re continuing to learn about concussions and its close link to CTE, I think a standard that treats hits to the head with a greater degree of disciplinary severity is well founded.
For me it’s the respective hits on the goaltenders that point to the bigger, underlying issues. Firstly, those respective incidents suggest to me the structural inability of the NHL to even have any type of disciplinary consistency. Let’s turn to these tweets from the godfather of hockey coverage Mr. Bob McKenzie:
When Shanahan first became the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, the suspensions were harsh and frequent. Then the league’s General Managers freaked out because Shanahan was, y’know, doing his job to try and make players think twice about throwing injurious hits. He was reigned in.
In this specific case, Shanahan’s standard was overruled by a group of thirty guys who were emotionally reacting to a hit (Lucic on Miller) at the GM meetings last fall. It’s a useful reminder that one of the reasons NHL discipline is so inconsistent is because the precepts underpinning it aren’t really coming from one source. Rather they originate from the league with input from several power nodes.
That’s the reality of Shanahan’s job, and I see no way around it really. Effective rules need to be fluid enough to respond to environmental changes and firm enough that they’re not just disregarded in favor of keeping everybody happy. It’s a delicate balance that I really don’t believe Shanahan or the league itself has down pat.
Brendan Shanahan has basically been in charge of NHL discipline for the equivalent of twelve active months (if we only count months in which NHL hockey was played). Over that span of time, I’d argue that he’s eroded consumer trust to the point where it certainly seems like he’s just putting a respectable face and a new media spin on the same old, same old. Which is extremely disappointing, but at least his own son doesn’t play in the league.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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