As anyone who watches the NHL knows, the rules are only as good as the enforcement of them. So now that the rules covering boarding and illegal checks to the head have been rewritten, broadening their scope, it's up to Brendan Shanahan(notes) to set a new standard, communicate it clearly and make sure it is applied as consistently as possible.
This is why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tapped Shanahan to become the new vice president of player safety and hockey operations, replacing senior executive VP of hockey ops Colin Campbell as the league's disciplinarian.
This is a tremendous challenge and opportunity. The NHL is still trying to strike a delicate balance, keeping the physical nature of the game while removing the most dangerous hits. But now it can start with a clean slate with Shanahan replacing Campbell, new wording in the rule book and a new mandate for stiffer supplemental discipline.
Shanahan is not burdened by the past. He can set his own precedents. As a former star player, he needs to relate to the players where the line is now and explain what will happen when that line is crossed, as specifically as possible. As situations arise and the new rules come into play, he needs to keep hammering home the message.
That's the plan. Shanahan said during the Stanley Cup Final that if the new rules were approved, as they were Tuesday by the league's board of governors, he and his player safety group would put together a DVD to send to all the teams. He also said they would try to meet and discuss the new standards with every team this fall.
"You have to have the players more educated on what they can and can't do," said Rob Blake(notes), a former star defenseman who now works with Shanahan in the NHL office. "Players will go to a certain line. They always will. But if they know they cross and they're in trouble, they'll adapt to it."
Shanahan also needs to reach out to the public so the fans understand the league's thought process, and that's part of the plan, too. He has plenty of political savvy, and Bettman knows it. One of the conditions of Shanahan taking this job was that he use NHL Network and NHL.com as platforms to explain his decisions.
"I keep using the word 'balance,' " Shanahan said when the general managers met this month in Boston. "I think you have to do your very best so players and coaches and managers have a reasonably informed expectation of what the standards are going to be."
In March 2010, the NHL instituted Rule 48 to ban lateral or blindside hits when the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact. There was no minor penalty under the rule, only a major with an automatic game misconduct.
Some player behavior changed. But big hits kept coming and so did the concussions, and there was plenty of confusion. Hit after hit, people questioned whether it was lateral or blindside, whether the head was targeted or the principle point of contact, whether there should be a suspension and how long it should be. People could look at the same hit and come to different conclusions. And by people, I don't just mean reporters and fans. I mean the players, coaches and GMs themselves.
The league studied the concussion issue and went over the data at the general managers' meetings this March. Among the findings: Forty-four percent of concussions resulted from legal hits, and more than half of those involved a secondary impact with the glass or boards. Fourteen percent of concussions resulted from legal hits to the head.
Bettman tasked Shanahan, Blake, Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk and Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman with examining the rules for charging and boarding, plus Rule 48. The four of them studied video of historical and recent hits. Like the GMs at large, they felt a total ban on hits to the head would go too far because of the nature of the game – forwards attacking bent over, defenseman standing up.
"We just felt there were too many clean, hard hits that did have incidental contact to the head," Shanahan said. "We didn't think a blanket rule fit the NHL."
They drew a distinction between a "vulnerable" player and a "defenseless" player. You can leave yourself vulnerable by, say, keeping your head down. In other words, there are still situations in which you are responsible for protecting yourself. If you're defenseless, you could not be reasonably expected to avoid a hit.
That led to the new rules. Boarding will be called when a player "checks or pushes a defenseless opponent" who impacts the boards "violently or dangerously." The words "lateral," "blindside" and "and/or" have been removed from Rule 48, which now outlaws contact to the head when it is "targeted and the principal point of contact." It will either be a minor or a match penalty, with no major in between. Both rules ask the officials to consider whether the player being hit put himself in a "vulnerable position."
We're talking fine lines in interpretations and big swings in penalties, which is why it is so critical for Shanahan to clearly communicate these rules in practical terms – showing examples on video, explaining them to everyone, over and over again. In regard to the new Rule 48, Shanahan said the group tried "to apply it in a way and write it in a way that with video it would be easier for a player to understand." He stressed the words "with video."
It's not going to be a fun process, even for a guy like Shanahan, whose charisma has made him a media darling.
"The media is going to turn on him just like they turned on me and just like they turned on Coli," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who spent five years as the NHL's disciplinarian. "You don't like a decision, you're going to write that, and then they're going to be calling for a panel, and then you'll turn on the panel. The media here think they know more about this stuff than the guy who does the job, and that's not going to change. So my advice to Brendan Shanahan is to have real thick skin and real small ears."
And to that I'd add: stick with it.
Shanahan helped overhaul the NHL during the lockout of 2004-05, leading discussions that led to new rules that led to a faster, more entertaining game. One of the negative byproducts was more dangerous collisions and hits, but now he has a chance to address it and get everybody on the same page – or at least as close to it as possible.
Maybe a total ban on hits to the head would be better. Maybe a total ban is inevitable. But let’s see how this works.
"I think that hockey fans, hockey purists, hockey players, owners, managers, coaches, we all have to remember that in the end we're all trying to get to the same place," Shanahan said. "We can fight each other about how we get there, but last year was a good first step."
This is the next one.