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NHL must stay strong with stiff suspensions

Brendan Shanahan has been at the center of attention lately because of the stiff suspensions he has handed out so far. (Photo By Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Brendan Shanahan has been at the center of attention lately because of the stiff suspensions he has handed out so far. (Photo By Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Having been sequestered for most of the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in a cottage that didn’t have cable TV or Internet access, the first thing I wanted to do upon arriving home Monday night was check the scores and NHL news. I read about Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s suspension for highsticking Matt Calvert Saturday night.

Naturally, I went directly to the NHL’s website to watch the latest episode of Judge Shanny to see what Bouchard did and Brendan Shanahan’s rationale for suspending him two games. I looked and I looked for it, but alas, it was nowhere to be found on the homepage.

The optimist in me wants to believe there is so much going on around the league and that the news cycle for the NHL’s website doesn’t have room for something that happened 48 hours before. The pessimist in me, however, can’t get over the nagging possibility the NHL is already beginning to cave from outside pressure.

When Don Cherry went off on Shanahan during his first period segment on the opening night of the season, those who occupy the best parking spots at the league’s New York headquarters were apparently livid. Those comments, along with a diatribe against former enforcers who have the temerity to question fighting’s role in the modern-day game, caused a firestorm of controversy, something in which Cherry revels because it keeps the glare directly on him.

In the short time Shanahan has been on the job, he has been lambasted by players (such as Clarke MacArthur), analysts (Marty McSorley and Cherry) and, most recently, an agent, in the form of Bouchard’s representative Allan Walsh. Could it be the league and Shanahan are tired of being verbal punching bags?

Let’s hope not, at least not this early. Because you know how this thing goes. First comes the chorus of criticism, then comes the resolve to stay strong and keep enforcing the new standard. Hey, yours truly has even taken a shot at Shanahan for not being harsher on Brad Boyes. But you’d have to think Shanahan expected this would be the most thankless job in professional sports before he took it. All he had to do was have a five second conversation with Colin Campbell, a guy whose best piece of advice would have been, “Before you take this job, you’d better realize that this is the most thankless job in professional sports.”

Walsh, meanwhile, is a tireless advocate for his clients. He took the Minnesota Wild to task over their handling of Martin Havlat and his ice time suddenly increased. He poked fun at the Montreal Canadiens for sticking with a struggling Carey Price while his client, Jaroslav Halak, rode the bench. And now Walsh has set both barrels on Shanahan and the NHL over the disciplinarian’s decision to suspend Bouchard.

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Among Walsh’s criticisms were the following:

“The notion that Pierre-Marc Bouchard intentionally swung his stick into the face of an opponent is patently absurd.” (Reality: Shanahan expressly said the reason he suspended Bouchard was for a “reckless” act, not an “intentional” one. Big difference.)

“What message is Brendan Shanahan sending with this unwarranted suspension? All perennial Lady Byng candidates should now be on notice that when an opponent highsticks himself in the mouth, he can expect a minimum suspension of two regular-season NHL games.” (Reality: If finishing in the top 20 in Lady Byng voting twice in an eight-year NHL career – fifth 2007 and 16th in 2008 – makes you a “perennial” Lady Byng candidate, your definition of “perennial” needs some work.)

“This result is a shameful farce for the league.” (Reality: If it is, it’s probably somewhere around No. 23,467 on the all-time list.)

If I’m the NHL, I keep Shanahan’s face front and center on my website all the time. Chances are, there are going to be at least 50 suspensions this season so it’s bound to be there most of the time anyway, but by keeping him prominent, the league is sending a message that it will not cave to anyone who applies any sort of pressure. Shanahan and the league know they are doing the right thing, just as they did when they weathered the storm of criticism after the lockout when it was suggested the game was going to hell in a hand basket because of a crackdown on obstruction. In reality, the game hasn’t been this good from an entertainment standpoint since the early 1990s.

Let’s hope Shanahan and the league can keep the Teflon intact. The players, coaches, fans, league executives and agents will adjust. Even longtime miscreant Matt Cooke has publicly vowed to change his ways and if he’s capable of doing that, anyone is.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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