MONTREAL - That the most visible man in the NHL pre-season has been Brendan Shanahan and not Sidney Crosby says much about what's on the minds of the hockey world going into the 2011-12 season—hits to the head.
As the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar and arguably the league's top player works on his recovery from a concussion caused by a pair of hits last season, Shanahan has been doling out startling suspensions for blows to the head since the pre-season opened Sept. 19.
And the ex-player who served five suspensions in a 21-year NHL career has a novel way of announcing the bans—appearing on videos in which he explains in detail, with replays of the hit, why it deserved extra punishment.
In the pre-season, hardly a day went by without a new video. Most players applauded the crackdown but others worried it may turn NHL hockey into no-hit shinny.
Nine players have been slapped with 31 regular season games worth of suspensions for incidents in exhibition games. Together, they will forfeit more than US$701,000 in salary.
"Change is always hard, but what we want is for the number of head injuries to come down," said Shanahan, who was named by commissioner Gary Bettman to a new position as senior vice president of player safety.
He took over as the league's disciplinarian from the much-maligned Colin Campbell.
The only significant off-season rule change was the broadening of Rule 48 on head blows.
Previously, calls were made only for blindside or lateral hits to the head. This season, they cover all hits in which "the head is the principal point of contact."
The league's general managers recommended the change amid a clamorous debate over heads shots like the shoulder to the jaw from Washington's Dave Steckel that ended Crosby's season during the Winter Classic outdoor game in January. Crosby looks to be recovering, but won't be ready for the Penguins' regular season opener.
Other players, including Boston centre Marc Savard, have suffered more serious concussions from head shots.
"I think he's sending a clear message that hits to the head and illegal blows aren't going to be tolerated," said Montreal defenceman Josh Gorges. "If guys haven't realized that by now it's their own fault.
"It's something we as players we have to recognize. It's a good move and hopefully it will save some guys from serious injuries."
Crosby also joined in the call to ban head shots, even if only 50 of 50,000 hits in hockey last season were to the head.
"Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you've got to be responsible out there," said Crosby. "At the end of the day, you can do a lot more good than what it's going to take away from the game."
Shanahan said he is just doing what the league's governors and general managers wanted by handing out stiffer suspensions. He said the videos were Bettman's idea.
The commissioner asked Shanahan to "detail the decision making process.
"Players and fans and GMs still won't necessarily agree with the decisions, but it explains them in better detail."
While head hits have gone from an automatic major penalty to a minor and possible match penalty, the supplemental discipline—suspensions—have risen dramatically.
James Wisniewski of the Columbus Blue Jackets was nailed for eight regular season games that will cost him $536,000 in salary for his shot to the head of Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck on Sept. 26.
Philadelphia's Jody Shelley, Anaheim's Jean-Francois Jacques and Detroit's Brendan Smith each got five games, Brad Staubitz of the Wild got three, Toronto's Clarke MacArthur and Philadelphia's Tom Sestito got two and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond of Calgary got a one game ban.
All also missed games in the pre-season, as did first-time offender Brad Boyes of Buffalo.
While Shanahan looked like a hanging judge through the first two weeks of the pre-season, not every head hit gets hammered.
The rule allows hits when the victim puts himself in a vulnerable position, as Montreal's Chris Campoli learned after he was flattened by Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone.
Shanahan called it his most challenging decision thus far, but ruled no suspension because Malone had already committed to the hit and Campoli leaned forward and left himself vulnerable.
Terry Gregson, the NHL's director of officiating, said officials will call the hits as they see them, but the main punishment for severe cases will come from the league.
"I wouldn't say it's easier, but it has taken one element (away)," said Gregson. "When it's not instinctive to you, you have to stop and think about it, but our job is reactionary.
"(Head hits) can come from anywhere now. Now we're just looking at targeting and point of contact instead of blindside or lateral. It's a bit of culture change here, but we are finding our way."
Gregson said only eight blindside hits were called all of last season. There will be more now, so the question is how long it will take players to adapt. There may have been more in the pre-season because a lot of junior and minor league players were on the ice with the NHLers.
He compared it to 2005, when the league came out of the 2004-05 lockout with broad new rules to speed up the game with a crackdown on obstruction fouls. It took a couple of seasons for players and refs to find a balance of what would or would not be called, but the end result was more open space for playmakers.
Some feel there are more head hits now because players are not held up as they crash into the opponent's zone anymore, and who knows if punishing head shots will lead to an increase in other types of fouls, like stickwork?
"Illegal checks to the head are something we want to take out of the game, so if you see it, you have to react to it," said Gregson. "But once you've done that, it's in the hands of supplementary discipline and they have the opportunity to do video replay.
"Our guys are the only people that judge this in real time. The media and everyone else judges it in video time."