Even before the first exhibition games, before he started dropping the hammer like a Wild West hanging judge, before his videos became as ubiquitous on the Internet as clips of zany, cuddly kittens, dark circles were forming under his eyes. They neatly set off the white zigzags—a C-shaped indent circling the arc of his lips on the left side, a small scar on his chin, scratches above the right side of his lip that look like choppy ice after a face-off—that once marked him as a player and now inform his desk job. The scars are bona fides that well serve Brendan Shanahan, boons to his curriculum vitae as the NHL's new vice president for violence. Like a black robe or a gavel, they legitimize him.
This is an article from the Oct. 10, 2011 issue
"Shanny's not too far removed from [playing]," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews says. "He understands the speed of the game and has a rapport with a lot of players."
Welcome to NHL 2011--12, a.k.a. Shanny World. The most significant hockey upgrades for the season are a revamped Rule 48, which now penalizes all intentional or reckless hits to the head, and a tweaked Rule 41, which broadens the interpretation of boarding. But the most intriguing change is the new man who will be fronting these calls when things go bad, a former All-Star winger who scored 656 goals, had 2,489 penalty minutes and was suspended by each of the last four men to hold his job.
Shanahan, who replaces Colin Campbell, is formally the senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations, a thin coat of linguistic whitewash that nods at prevention instead of punishment. He can't rewrite the laws, but he can enforce them with vigor. Last month Hang 'em High Shanny started with a 10-game suspension for Philadelphia recidivist Jody Shelley (five exhibition matches, five real ones) for a hit from behind and a five-game suspension (the remainder of the preseason and one regular-season game) for the Flames' Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, again for a hit from behind. Through Sunday, Shanahan was the hardest-working man in video justice this side of Judge Joe Brown, having handed out nine suspensions worth 31 regular-season games and $701,682.56. Predictably, there has been blowback. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said Shanahan was going too far, while Maple Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur, nailed two games for a head hit, complained that the NHL seemed hell-bent on removing all hitting from the game. Shanahan, meanwhile, explained each decision with succinct eloquence in videos that were posted on the league's website. The production values are pedestrian, but in a suit jacket and open-necked dress shirt ... damn, he looks ready for his close-up.
Pre-Shanahan, NHL discipline had been like the story of the Three Bears. Campbell, who held the job for 13 years, would announce, say, a suspension of three games for some act of temporary lunacy and hockey's chattering classes would then pronounce it too hot, too cold, or, infrequently, juuuuuust right. Now the league is offering the Three Bears on Steroids with the hope that muscular suspensions, which seem to have had minimal impact as deterrents in the past—Shanahan's case load is full, isn't it?—will modify behavior.
Shanahan is viewed as a progressive because of his work with the competition committee that helped reshape the postlockout game in 2005, but he has yet to tiptoe outside the box, even if his amped-up justice has pushed back its walls. There are ideas floating in the hockey ether, proposed by, among others, recently retired winger Paul Kariya, that could further reduce head shots.
One proposal would spread the pain of a suspension. If a player were suspended, a team would not be allowed to replace him on the roster and would be obliged to dress 19 for a game, which might bring dressing-room pressure from teammates to bear on a habitual scofflaw. (Some NHL officials privately worry over a potential unintended consequence of the idea: elevated risk of injury for those forced to play more minutes. Of course, there was no hand-wringing over increased injury risk when the Devils dressed only 17 for one game last October because of salary-cap issues.) Another suggestion involves fines for a franchise if one of its players is suspended, making the employer pay as much as the employee. Take, for example, the Penguins' Matt Cooke, perpetrator of the season-ending blind-side hit on the Bruins' Marc Savard in March 2010. (There was no penalty, or suspension, on the play.) Cooke's salary cap hit is $1.8 million. If Cooke, who has been suspended five times, costs Pittsburgh another, say, $1 million in fines this season ... well, the club might like him a lot less as a $2.8 million player. "Those ideas," Stars captain Brenden Morrow says with a nod, "have air." The $100,000 fine leveled against the Islanders for their role in a Slap Shot-ian brawl against the Penguins last February conceivably could serve as a template, although the NHL probably would have to increase that fine by a factor of three for this approach to have any real effect. Without directly endorsing the concept, Shanahan says, "My interest is in changing player behavior. Putting myself in the skates of players, I know there would be an enormous amount of fear if I had just affected my franchise."
Shanahan frets about the brain. Toward the end of his 21-year career he sustained a concussion from a collision that knocked him out and left him with vertigo for weeks. He watched his father, Donal, fade away because of Alzheimer's. He is working with former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider, now a special assistant to Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, to help manufacturers develop higher density foam padding for elbow and shoulder pads, which would eliminate the hard plastic caps—a change that could be in place for next season. "Whether it's Sidney Crosby or some guy in his first NHL game, we're concerned," Shanahan says. "All we're doing about concussions and making the game safer was well underway before Sidney got hurt."
Sidney Crosby used to be the face of the game. Now he is also the face of the game's most pressing problem.
Since he was felled last January by the head shots heard round the world(David Steckel's hit in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, followed four nights later by Victor Hedman's check from behind) the tone of the discussion about head shots has changed. Those concerned about hockey losing its innate qualities of physicality and intimidation—including former coach and general manager Mike Milbury, a TV analyst, who in 2008 coined the unfortunate word "pansification" on the CBC—now share the megaphone with head-shot abolitionists. Crosby's concussion symptoms have abated. He practiced in five-on-five situations with his Pittsburgh teammates for the first time on Sept. 25 but has already been ruled out for the start of a season that can't come soon enough following a summer that, as one league executive expressed with heartfelt simplicity, "sucked."
There is an aura of success that rings the NHL, at least in a macro sense. The business certainly is growing, boosted by expanding corporate sponsorships, and a Canadian dollar that is currently on par with its U.S. counterpart. When the league returned from a seasonlong lockout in 2005, the salary cap was $39 million per team; now the floor is $9.3 million higher than the original ceiling. Bettman brokered a new 10-year, $1.9 billion deal with the NBC Sports Group, a holy grail for a commissioner who has been on the job since 1993, when the league was one year removed from a single-season, $5.5 million broadcast partnership with SportsChannel America. The Atlanta Thrashers renamed themselves the Jets after the franchise relocated to Winnipeg, a market of 700,000 that might have sustainability issues—the original Jets abandoned the city for Phoenix in 1996—but one that also offers a welcome jolt of O Canada passion. Indirectly, the possibility of a prolonged NBA lockout this winter could give the NHL more access to sports dollars.
But at the dawn of a new season, mourning continues around the league after the grimmest summer in hockey history. Instead of focusing on mundane seasonal concerns—Will the Capitals' players at last wholly commit themselves to winning a Stanley Cup? Have the Sharks run out of next years?—the league is still reeling from the deaths of three players within 16 weeks. Derek Boogaard died on May 13 from a toxic mix of alcohol and painkillers. Rick Rypien, who suffered from depression, apparently committed suicide on Aug. 15. And Wade Belak, who retired last March, died in a Toronto hotel room on Aug. 31 under circumstances that police have not yet revealed. Their principal connection was a shared role as enforcers, which reopened the raw debate about the place of fighting in the NHL. Then, on Sept. 7, a charter carrying the Yaroslavl team of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League crashed and killed 37 team personnel, a disaster that continues to reverberate in the cross-pollinated hockey world.
At least the prospect of Crosby's (probable) return has lightened the mood. After being harder to locate last summer than Waldo, Crosby, who turned 24 in August, resurfaced at a press conference in Pittsburgh early last month, and his I-don't-know-when answer to the question of when he might come back was as vague as it was accurate. The problem with concussions is that they lend themselves neither to time frames nor Twitter. "In modern life we're used to getting information instantly when we want it, but it doesn't work that way with this injury," Crosby says. "If I'd had to report what stage I was at, I'd have been telling a different story every two days." Crosby was asymptomatic in training camp. While his father, Troy, could spot some rust—Crosby's shot didn't seem up to his lofty standards—the NHL's marquee player certainly looked ready to go. The Penguins grade every preseason practice on a scale of one to five; through Sunday, Crosby had yet to grade out lower than four.
"The game needs him back for sure," Rangers center Brad Richards says. "What he was doing before Christmas"—Crosby had 32 goals and 66 points in half a season—"was unbelievable. The way game planning and video and coaching are now, that was the best hockey I'd seen anyone play."
"Maybe you can't yet compare him to Tiger Woods, but what's our game without its best player?" Toews asks. "When he's dealing with a concussion, it definitely centers a lot more of attention on an issue we don't want in the game."
In the past 10 years concussions have robbed the NHL of a raft of marquee players that includes Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros, goalie Mike Richter, defenseman Scott Stevens and forwards Adam Deadmarsh and Keith Primeau. Savard will not play this season because of postconcussion syndrome; his career is imperiled if not formally over. Kariya announced his retirement in June after sitting out the 2010--11 season, six concussions short-circuiting an NHL career that featured 402 goals and an Olympic gold medal. In what he calls "the dumbest thing I ever did," Kariya returned five minutes after being wallpapered into unconsciousness by Stevens's signature shoulder-to-jaw check in Game 6 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. Incredibly, Kariya scored a goal although he has no recollection of that match or Game 7. If there had been no lockout in '04--05, Kariya says he might have retired then. He says, "I needed two full years to recover from the Stevens hit. If you look at my [neuropsychological] testing [results], I never recovered from it."
At the All-Star Game last January, Bettman said that while the concussions were on the rise in 2010--11, the increase came, in part, from "accidental and inadvertent" collisions. (Presumably, Steckel's fly-by shoulder that struck Crosby's head would be considered accidental, although Crosby was not diagnosed with a concussion until after the Hedman hit. Crosby, incidentally, is not so sure Steckel and he met by accident. "If it was [Steckel's then Washington teammate] Mike Green in that path and not me," he asks, "would the same thing have happened?") Bettman credited Rule 48 for a decrease in concussions from blind-side hits, but players seemed as confused as the NHL hockey operations department, which could not always differentiate, even in slo-mo, an east-west check from a northwest-southeast check. Instead of drawing a map, the NHL got tougher. Of course, the revised Rule 48 does not proscribe all head hits. Although a player must be responsible for his stick—a high stick that draws blood is an automatic double minor, regardless of intent—he does not have to be as careful with his body.
Given Shanahan's preseason docket, maybe the more significant rule change will be the redefined boarding call. Rule 41 now penalizes a player for pushing a defenseless opponent into the boards; the violence of the check is no longer the focus. The language of the rule also has been tightened, "defenseless" having replaced "vulnerable." This might be splitting hairs, but for a league that is still coming to grips with concussions 14 years after it became the first North American pro league to introduce baseline neuropsych testing, it is remains laudable.
In conjunction with the players' association, the NHL is lurching toward a safer work environment. But over lunch early last month, Crosby was wondering the same thing about the league that many hockey fans had wondered about him: What's taking so long?
"I'm talking about taking out maybe 50 or 75 hits a year that could really save some guys' careers and maybe the way they live—without changing the game," Crosby says. "Hockey Canada and USA Hockey have zero tolerance for head hits. Kids playing hockey today are not even going to know what hockey was like when there were head hits. This is going to change in the NHL at some point. I just think it needs to be sooner rather than later."