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Rethinking NHL supplemental discipline: Time for an independent arbitrator instead of Brendan Shanahan?

Greg Wyshynski
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Shea Weber should have been suspended for smashing Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass. Andrew Shaw should have avoided suspension for his collision with Mike Smith. Ten playoff games for Raffi Torres would have sent a message; 25 games for what he did to Marian Hossa frames it within the criminal context of Chris Simon and Marty McSorley stick fouls.

But beyond that, I think Brendan Shanahan and the Dept. of Player Safety have been fair and fairly consistent during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, following a regular season that successfully lived up to the department's mission statement: "We want to make the game as safe as possible while preserving the intense, physical, passionate nature of hockey."

It's not a perfect system. For example, the notion that Raffi Torres' only appeal is to the man -- Gary Bettman -- that hired Shanahan's department is ludicrous. It renders the appellate process as an extension of the punitive sentencing, like if Judge Dredd ran NHL discipline.

Were there an independent arbitrator in place for such appeals, perhaps players would utilize that process more often. But the venerable Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette would go one step further: Dumping Shanahan, and turning the Dept. of Player Safety into the judicial branch of the NHL.

From Hickey in the Gazette:

The general theme for those examining Shanahan's body of work is that it has been inconsistent, and that's why the NHL should consider two changes. The first is to take the role of disciplinarian out of the hands of a league employee who may be subject to pressure from owners and general managers. The league should find a judge, someone with a fine legal mind and a love of hockey, and give him the power to rule independently on any misdeeds that crop up.

The NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association currently employ independent arbitrators to rule on salaries, but they can be replaced at the whim of either party. Anyone hired as a judge would need an ironclad contract with a promise of complete independence.

It's an interesting argument: The NHL uses independent arbitrators to settle so many other disputes between players and teams/management/the league, why wouldn't it do so for supplemental discipline?

The kicker here is labeling Shanahan as "a league employee who may be subject to pressure from owners and general managers."

That's a conspiratorial level of accusation for a department that may have gotten a few wrong along the way but hardly played favorites when it comes to disciplining franchises — Are we to believe that the Vancouver Canucks are a protected species for the NHL?

If anything, Shanahan's relationship with the GMs goes like this: He works with them to establish loose guidelines for what they want and don't want penalized, and then they scream bloody murder into his phone when their guy gets dinged under that mandate. (As much as I don't like the Shaw suspension, it falls under their "protect the goalies at all costs" request.)

An independent judge may bristle at that level of collaboration.

Hickey continues:

The second step would be to follow the lead of most judicial systems and establish sentencing guidelines. The first offence for charging may be a game, while boarding or a hit to the head is three games. And each additional offence is doubled. If you injure a player, you can expect an additional three games, with these penalties also increasing exponentially.

Eh … I sorta hate mandatory minimums.

There's context and nuance to every play; while that can be maddening at times, it's also important. The best thing the Shanahan regime has done is produce the videos that explain their reasoning for suspensions — breaking down incidents so you have a clear understanding why one hit is worth three games and another is worth five.

Sentencing guidelines provide artificial benchmarks, punishments that may not always fit the crime. They'd drain the process of inconsistency, but sometimes that inconsistency is a product of fairness and logic. And the idea of an injury-related additional sentence is begging for teams to play politics.

I've been a fan of a three-person panel for supplemental discipline in the past: NHL, NHLPA and some independent judge. The obstacle to that end, I've been told repeatedly by the league: How do you find a judge who understands the game of hockey well enough and doesn't have any political ties to current NHL teams.

I think the Dept. of Player Safety, in this incarnation, has been an improvement. Let's give Shanahan a sophomore season (if he wants it) before debating a revamp.

Additional reading, by the way: Check out USA Today's sit-down with Shanahan, including thoughts on Shea Weber and the suspension process.

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