By Stu Hackel
When the NHL season starts tonight, fans and the media will have one eye on the action and the other on Brendan Shanahan, the league's vice president of safety, who has taken over the job of disciplining players for flagrant violations of the rules. Because of the escalation in dangerous play during the past few seasons and the heightened awareness of the effects of concussions on players' long-term health, his is now one of the most important jobs in hockey.
It is also the worst job in hockey.
Perhaps only Gary Bettman among hockey personages has been more reviled over the past dozen years than Shanahan's predecessor, Colin Campbell. Maybe it's a tie. How deserving either man has been of all that scorn is a matter for discussion, but that does not alter the facts: The person who enacts league discipline on players will likely end up hugely unpopular.
The rancor can come from the fans, who either want the perpetrator banned (if not shot) or, if he plays for their favorite team, exonerated and hailed as some sort of hero or martyr. No matter what, some group is unhappy.
It can come from the media, this blogger included, who are not averse to assuming the role of an outraged God in these little morality plays. And it can come from the teams, who don't want their players removed from the lineup. In their eyes, their players do little or nothing wrong. It's often the victim who is to blame, at least partially, and the perpetrator's clubs often transmit that message to their local media for dissemination to their fans.
The one who has to enact justice, the standards for which are developed by the teams themselves, often catches the most hell of all.
With Campbell, whose decisions were guided by a lenient policy set by the league's GMs based on a wink-wink understanding that none of them wanted to lose the services of their players for an extended period, the most grief came from the fans and media. But game's new reality, it's heightened degree of danger and concern for the well-being of the men who play it, forced the sport to reexamine that leniency. Into this new world stepped Shanahan.
He took over from Campbell, a former player from another era (a rugged one at that, despite his not being a big man) and coach, a decent guy who was untrained in both administration and the communication arts. Campbell became worn to a nub by charges that ranged from incompetence, conflict of interest, nepotism, and incoherence to all manner of personal attacks on his intelligence. He also rarely helped himself with his rulings and his explanations of them, as heard in interviews like this one (audio) from last season.
Now comes Shanahan, who is both very qualified and unqualified for this position. He's qualified because he played in the NHL at a very high level for most of his career. He has first-hand knowledge of the how the game is played and admits to committing many of the fouls for which he now must suspend players.
Shanahan has been an on-ice leader and was also involved on the NHLPA side in helping formulate the post-lockout rules that govern the newer, faster brand of hockey that is widely regarded as contributing to the rise in headchecking, boarding and other transgressions that were unanticipated consequences of creating a more appealing product.
He also has something of a natural charm. Shanahan has long been known for having a sharp sense of humor:
He's well-spoken, a favorite among those in the press, and telegenic:
Unlike Colin Campbell, Shanahan has likely gotten some media training.
However, he was also someone who liked the cheers of the crowd, the laughter of the audience. He's wanted to please the fans, the media, his coaches, his bosses. It's part of his social DNA. It's who Brendan Shanahan is. Having been a coach, Colin Campbell knew he couldn't make everyone happy. He had a job to do, he was going to do it, and he'd stand up for whatever he ruled.
No one is quite sure how Shanahan will react to no longer being a popular figure.
Truth is, Shanny's initial rulings in the preseason -- making good on the GMs' pledge to hand down harsher suspensions -- won raves from large segments of the media and fans, many of whom have started to swing from their team-first perspective to wanting what is good for the game. Many applauded not just the rulings, but Shanahan's video explanations of them, zeroing in on the visual infraction and the exact wording from the rulebook that pertains to it.
And yet, some of the same hockey executives who recognized the need to set a new tone for the NHL this season apparently haven't been so supportive. "He's been getting bombarded, not so much by the media, but by other hockey people" for his rulings, NBC and SI's Pierre McGuire said this morning on Ottawa radio Team 1200's Three Guys In The Morning program (audio). "A lot of hockey people have been calling in (to the NHL office) and ripping into him."
"There are general managers who are looking at all these suspensions saying, 'Oh my God, what have we done here? What kind of can of worms have we opened up?'" Bob McKenzie said Wednesday (audio) on TSN Radio Montreal's The Morning Show. "And there are players and there are coaches who look at it and say, 'This is getting crazy.' But there's also as many, if not more, general managers and coaches or players who say, 'Long over due. There's too much hitting from behind, too many guys taking liberties when they're hitting someone in the head, and if we have to go through a painful process here, we have to go through it because the game is going to be better on the other side.'"
Hopefully, that other group is also contacting Shanahan to voice support.
Shanny launched something of a counteroffensive on NHL.com on Wednesday with the release of a new video, this one showing how players during preseason had been heeding the new rules, learning from the suspensions, and pulling up or changing their routes rather than making an illegal hit. And after those examples, Shanahan defended his suspensions against his critics -- the "Sky Is Falling Contingent," McKenzie calls them -- including those in the media (like NBC's and NESN's Mike Milbury, who charged in a media conference call earlier this week that Shanahan would turn the NHL into "touch football" if he stayed on this path), by showing a good number of clean hits from preseason games.
"He's not used to having negative things said about him and he's not used to having negative things written about him," McGuire said of Shanahan over Ottawa radio. "And that's going to be the true test for him, whether he can handle it over the long-term, because that is not an easy thing to deal with....I can see what it did to Colin Campbell....It broke him right down. At some point, I think it breaks everyone down. I think this is a job that has a shelf life."
The pressures on Shanahan and the group assisting him in these decisions continue to mount with the news yesterday that the late Rick Martin, the former Sabres star of the 1970s, was found to have early stage CTE, , the degenerative brain disease that causes dementia and other neurological disorders and has been associated with repeated head trauma. The startling element here is that Martin was not an enforcer -- he had only 14 fights during his NHL career -- and only suffered one known major concussion, in 1978, that kept him out of the lineup. He played without a helmet until that injury.
More on Martin's condition and the consequences of hockey concussions suffered by a others can be seen on this highly recommended segment from the CBC nightly news program, The National from Wednesday night. It is must viewing for anyone concerned with the game's well-being, and includes a passage critical of the NHL and specifically Shanahan and for not taking the time to fully understand the science behind this problem and the urgency to act.
The news about Rick Martin will have to be digested by the hockey world and factored into what is already known about the sort of activity that leads to head trauma: that it is not just enforcers who can suffer the most dire outcomes. Despite the inevitable criticism he's getting from those who would lead the game backward, it should prod Shanahan and his colleagues to keep moving forward as they perform the worst job in the sport.