Brendan Shanahan takes over for Colin Campbell as the fans' whipping boy when the don't like suspensions. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER – And all this time we thought Gary Bettman actually liked Brendan Shanahan. Hate to see what Bettman does to the guys he can’t stand. Guess we should ask the guys who used to own the Atlanta Thrashers about that one.
With the shiny new title of senior vice-president, player safety and hockey operations, Shanahan has landed, “the most thankless and worst job in hockey,” according to his boss. Shanahan is an all-around good guy who has spent a career building up a great public image, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts and whether or not it will survive his first suspension.
But what was most encouraging about the news was the public acknowledgment that the NHL needs to do a better job when it comes to handling on-ice discipline. Bettman admitted as much when he said, “I believe it is time to take a fresh look at the standards we use. And if we’re going to move to harsher discipline, that change needs to send a clear message and we think it would probably be best to do it with a clean slate.”
Strong words by the commish. We can only hope he means them. This, after all, is a league that has been alarmingly slow to react to the increased danger in the game and, for the most part, has been astonishingly limp-wristed when it comes to protecting its assets by imposing harsh, and sometimes unpopular, suspensions.
After seeing the devastation that head shots have wreaked on the game, most of the power brokers in the league can’t even come to a consensus on what constitutes a head shot. We’ll take “contact with the head” for 200, but hey, what do we know?
If all of this does indicate a change in the culture of the game, then you’ll hear nothing but applause from this corner. But for the moment, we’ll be Missouri. The NHL is going to have to show us it means what it says by imposing a stiff suspension the next time a player acts with complete disregard for the safety of his opponent, whether what he did is intentional or not. Will the game be noticeably safer for the players because of this? When asked if this would lead to more severe supplemental discipline, Bettman responded by saying, “that is my hope and expectation.”
Bettman could have been a lot more emphatic about that. After all, he’s the commissioner of the league. And that’s why this corner remains unconvinced for the moment. We’ve heard a lot of tough talk, but when it comes to actually doing something substantial, these guys often wilt.
As far as Campbell is concerned, he has always been a good and decent man who was caught in an untenable position. I can’t point to more than a handful of decisions with which I agreed and the lenience of most of them has driven many people to distraction. But Campbell was also caught in a culture of violence that the game has always encouraged and sold. To be sure, Campbell didn’t have the same resolve from the league that his successor seems to have.
Campbell was often portrayed as an old-time hockey guy, but away from the cameras his passion for the game and the safety of the players always came shining through. His was a progressive voice that was often drowned out by those who see a reduction of needless violence as a move to four-on-four ringette for the NHL. Campbell often spoke of his concern for the safety of the players, something that was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that his own son, Gregory, played in the league and has had concussion problems.
(As an aside, I saw Campbell before the Memorial Cup final in Mississauga last Sunday and he told me he would be, “just another beer drinking father,” at the Stanley Cup final. If we only knew…)
Shanahan is probably as good a choice as anyone to take over the job. He was the consummate professional as a player – his exit strategy from Hartford notwithstanding – and there is little doubt he’ll bring the same attributes to his new job. He’ll have to have a thick skin and if the NHL is serious about taking discipline more seriously, he’ll likely have 30 GMs wanting to tar and feather him before long.
But the NHL went out of its way to add the “player safety” aspect to his title. We can only hope the league follows through with its newfound intentions.