Late last year, the National Hockey League's most notorious rule-breaker flew to New York City for a meeting with the League's new head of supplemental discipline.
For once, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn't on trial for an injurious, illicit act on the ice; in fact, newly named NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan was determined to educate Cooke on how to avoid them.
"Matt Cooke and I had a conversation at the start of the year, and for the most part it's held true," said Shanahan. "If he's coming up on a hit, and he thinks it's 50/50 [as far as legality], he knows he's not going to throw that hit."
Cooke has continued to talk to Shanahan about the NHL's player safety standards, and the reinforced rules on checks to the head and boarding calls that were added in 2011. So did the Philadelphia Flyers, regarding one of their hardest hitting players.
"Philadelphia told me about Zac Rinaldo," said Shanahan. "He's a really big hitter. Hits hard. But they said to him that if you see 20 hits a game in your head, pick the best three. That's enough to be a physical, intimidating player in this League. When I hear coaching like that, that's when I'm thinking there's full buy-in there."
Shanahan is entering his fifth month as the League's head disciplinarian. He and fellow player safety official Rob Blake tote around their iPads to dinner and around the house each game night, looking at between 4-5 questionable acts on average. Some are deemed legal; others begin the supplemental discipline process.
Since Sept. 20, the Department of Player Safety has handed out 35 suspensions and 19 fines, accounting for well over $1 million in money collected. Players ranging from Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares to Dan Carcillo and Brad Marchand have been castigated.
Whether it's the frequency of suspensions, the comprehensive video explanations that Shanahan hosts or simply players slowly understanding the League's new rules and player safety philosophy, Shanahan's starting to see the seeds that the NHL's planted take root.
"We're not in the business of punishing. We're trying to change behavior," he said.
"I think it's harder to hit [in the NHL]. I think people are starting to see that hitting really well is an art form."
So how has Shanahan fared in his first half-season on the job, after replacing Colin Campbell last year? He admits there have been good calls but also "mistakes" from his department.
"If I feel like I've made a bad decision — if I was light on a guy or hard on a guy — the one or two decisions that I think I missed are the ones that people try to use as my precedent," said Shanahan, speaking after the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Ottawa last weekend. "If I miss one, I miss one. And I'm not gonna be bound by it. If someone says, 'You gave me four but last month you gave this guy two,' … I think I made a mistake.
"What I say to players when I meet with them is that you'd all love to play a perfect season. Your coach would love to coach a perfect season. Your GM would love to never make a mistake on a signing. And I would love to have a perfect season, and I won't. But I'll strive for that," he said.
"If we do make a mistake, whether it's glaringly high or glaringly low, our work is there for everyone to see. [And] I take the work to heart. My training as a player has taught me to move on."
One of the keys for the Department of Player Safety is to make sure players suspended or fined don't simply move on. That they understand why a decision was made, and that begin to grasp the type of hitting the NHL wants in and out of its product.
Without question, the greatest innovation of the Shanahan regime has been the video explanations for suspensions that are posted to NHL.com, in sync with news of the bans.
"The feedback I get from players is that it shows the transparency. Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, I think it shows the level of work that we put into it. And it actually forces us to be better. If we can't prove it on a video … using video forces us to ask ourselves those questions," said Shanahan.
"Sometimes when players or teams come out and say 'that's not an illegal hit,' the video shows that it was. But when we hear from a player or manager that reveals something to us that we haven't seen … sometimes the pressure to make a compelling video works in the player's favor. I've had five or six hearings where the player didn't get suspended. "
In other words: If the video doesn't show it, then it becomes difficult to prove it happened.
The videos have worked as a way to educate those in the NHL and those who watch the NHL about the League's rules and new expectations for hits. They highlight nuances, point out things the layman may have missed. But they're also like mini-documentaries produced subjectively: a suspension's been handed out, and here's the justification for it.
Like, for example, the Brad Marchand clipping of Sami Salo:
Some argued it was a hip check rather than a clip. What the video showed was that Marchand's reaction to an onrushing Salo wasn't self-defense but rather a "predatory" hit.
"Two hits may look alike to the average player. But we do this every day. It's our job. We can look at a Marchand hit, for instance, and a week and a half later see Foligno on Phaneuf and see about four significant differences in the hits. One of them was suspendable, and Foligno got a phone call," said Shanahan.
He hopes the videos make the distinction clear to players. In fact, he hopes to make some videos that celebrate those who comprehend it.
"It's unfortunate the only time people see or hear from me is when I'm punishing a player and explaining why I'm doing it. We see players making safer decisions around the boards every night. Maybe we should start making videos about that again."
The Department of Player Safety has done one of those "hitting right" video completions this season. Why hasn't there been a second one?
"Too busy, man. I'd like to be making videos all day, every day," said Shanahan.
SUSPEND TO THE INJURY
One of the reasons Marchand was suspended for five games was that Salo suffered a concussion on the play. Suspending "to the injury" has long been a controversial aspect of NHL supplemental discipline, and it's still a point of contention under Shanahan.
He says there's no ignoring injury as a determining factor for suspensions, but explains that they're not the reason a player is called before the NHL.
"In every suspension, there's two parts: the trial and the sentencing. The injury is not part of the trial, but it's part of the sentencing. I think it reflects how we do justice in the U.S. and Canada. There's the guilty act, which puts you before the court, and the result of your guilty act — depending on the person you committed a crime against — it reflects in the sentencing," he said.
The reliance on injuries for sentencing has created some confusion for NHL players.
"I had a player who asked me, 'If I hit a guy clean, but he gets hurt and I have a history, am I gonna get suspended?' And I said no. The presence of an injury does not make a legal hit illegal," said Shanahan.
"However, if there is an illegal hit, the lack of injury will not exonerate you. But the presence of an injury will get you more games."
Intent vs. accident. Injury vs. the potential for injury. There are so many factors at play in these decisions that consistency might be impossible to achieve — but it's not without a lack of trying.
"Consistency is something that's subjective," said Shanahan, on his critics.
Part of the consistency issue is that players and GMs have long memories. They don't mark the start of time at the start of Shanahan's tenure — they think back to hits that were legal and accepted 10 years ago that aren't today.
Shanahan tells them he probably did the same thing as a player. So did many of Shanahan's peers. But it's a different time and a different philosophy in the NHL. Coaches and GMs spent decades complaining about getting "that garbage" out of the game. When Brendan Shanahan arrived in the Department of Player Safety holding a couple of trash cans, some of those protesters celebrated and others bemoaned the idea that the NHL had gone too far, too fast in policing physical play.
"I'm not surprised when the player or the team that's on the receiving end for the suspension questions the consistency," he said. "What we do is we show our work. We have an answer. You may not agree with it."
It's not uncommon for Shanahan to receive an angry phone call from a general manager after a suspension is announced, sometimes staying on the line for 30 minutes "about whether something that got four games should have been three," he said.
"My feeling is that it's a healthy argument. We're on the same planet. But we'll have a real concern if I think something's 10 and [the general manager] thinks it's zero."
The consistency issue has baffled some media critics who see Shanahan has having been too soft on certain offenders. It's also affected players who see two similar players and can't quite understand what's legal and what isn't. Shanahan acknowledges that confusion, which is why he's had an open-door policy on interaction with player.
"If a player calls me up that's never been suspended and says, 'I don't know how to play,' I think it's a pretty fair statement," he said.
"When a player says it a week after getting suspended, I think it sounds like excuses."
Sometimes after a hearing, Shanahan will turn to a member of his Department of Player Safety brain trust — Rob Blake, Stephane Quintal, former player safety czar Colin Campbell, NHL media relations VP John Dellapina, VP of Player Safety and Hockey Operations Damian Echevarrieta among them — and say that he knows the player is not going to be back in front of them for a suspension trial. That the message was heard.
And then there are those the NHL has seen with frequency: The repeat offenders.
"The one thing you don't want to be when you come before our department is a repeat offender. That's the direction I got from the general managers and the players," he said.
More than injury or intent, having been previously suspended is the Department's greatest suspension multiplier. Whether it's a frequently banned player like Dan Carcillo or a relatively clean player like Kris Letang, having had a run-in with the NHL before players a huge role in the sentencing — even if it's not an automatic trigger for additional games out of the lineup.
"We also look at the specific-ness of his history. How recent is it? Was it similar? So it's not a box that we check," said Shanahan.
Now that he's been in the job for half a season, Shanahan is starting to see some of the players he's already disciplined come back for another hearing: Carcillo (before an injury ended his season), Rene Bourque, Andy Sutton and Jean-Francois Jacques have each been suspended at least twice in 2011-12. Marchand and Pat Kaleta have been given a fine and a suspension.
"When you have a hearing with a guy and he gives you a rendition of events, and he can almost hear it in his own voice that he just had this conversation three weeks ago, his peers and my bosses feel to a certain degree that it's inexcusable," said Shanahan.
"Those have been very short hearings."
TAKING HITTING OUT OF THE GAME
Shanahan was given a lofty mandate by the NHL and its managers: To not only reprimand repeat offenders, but to slowly change the way every player approaches potentially injurious hits.
Critics view it as changing the fundamentals of the game; i.e. "taking the hitting out of hockey"; or as Don Cherry put it on Coach's Corner, the end of Scott Stevens-like checking machines:
Shanahan has heard the "could Scott Stevens play today?" argument many times.
"Scott Stevens had Hall of Fame timing," he said. "It wasn't like taking some young guy, putting him in a suit of armor and saying, 'Go!' There's timing. There's sense. Scott Stevens had very few elbowing minors in his career. There are a lot of people who want to hit like Scott Stevens but don't have his timing."
Shanahan acknowledges that hitting has become more difficult in today's NHL, with players hesitant about checks that might be completely clean. That's the difficulty in his task at hand: Maintaining an element of physicality in the NHL while at the same time attempting to curb reckless play.
"We can't do this job with an ax. Sometimes we have to use a surgical knife," he said. "Of all the suspensions we've done this year, there's only been four or five that we called intentional."
What he's banking on is that all players — the clean hitters, the reckless hitters, the goons and the thugs — begin to understands the standards being reinforced by these fines and suspensions.
"I think anybody can change," he said.
"We were surprised when we changed the rules on hooking and holding. We thought some of the players couldn't adapt, and we were surprised to see some of the players we didn't think could that did. Derian Hatcher's name would come up: That he was too physical or too big. He had some injury problems, but he was able to adapt."
Some players will, some players won't. But it's clear the Department of Player Safety has gotten their attention.
"It's been four months. The players are trying to change 10, 15 years of habits of hitting. And it takes time," said Shanahan.
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