A fine was not enough. The Nashville Predators' Shea Weber should have been suspended for a game for his assault on the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg on Wednesday night. That simple.
Brendan Shanahan has done a remarkable job in his first season as the NHL's disciplinarian, communicating his decisions clearly via video and remaining relatively consistent. You've got to respect that he sticks to his principles and does what he thinks is right, even when he's well aware so many others will think he's wrong. But he was wrong on this one.
It was opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Predators were protecting a 3-2 lead over the Red Wings. There were 5.1 seconds left. The Preds won a faceoff in their zone, and the puck went back into the corner. Zetterberg bumped Weber from behind as he fought for the puck. Weber's head hit the glass.
Weber retaliated by swinging at Zetterberg. His punch missed, just grazing Zetterberg's head. So the 6-foot-4, 232-pound defenseman grabbed the head of the 5-foot-11, 197-pound forward and shoved it into the glass as time expired.
This is a sport of shades of gray, but this incident was black-and-white. This was a blatant attempt to injure at the end of a game. This was a targeting of the head at a time when concussions are a major issue. This was one star (a Norris Trophy candidate) trying to take out another (a former Conn Smythe winner) at the beginning of a playoff series. Even though Zetterberg apparently was fine and will return for Game 2, this was unacceptable.
Now, understand a few things: Shanahan agrees that this was unacceptable. He would have considered a one-game suspension more serious than usual, because he weighs playoff games more heavily than regular-season games. A fine doesn't mean Weber got off – that a player making $7.5 million this season pays only $2,500 of pocket change and moves on.
The league cannot fine Weber any more than $2,500 under the collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association – another issue for another day in labor negotiations this summer – and the significance of the fine isn't supposed to be the dollar amount. The significance is supposed to be that it puts Weber on notice.
The next time Weber does something like this, he will be considered a repeat offender and will be suspended. He was fined earlier this season, but that was for boarding, a different type of infraction. He has never been suspended in his seven-year NHL career.
"This play and the fine that addressed it will be significant factors in assessing any incidents involving Shea Weber throughout the remainder of the playoffs," said Shanahan in a statement.
In theory, the threat of more significant punishment in the future should change Weber's behavior, and changing behavior has been Shanahan's stated goal since he became the NHL's senior vice-president in charge of player safety and hockey operations. He has always said his job is not to punish, not to send messages, not to make statements, not give people satisfaction. At their meeting in March, he told the league’s general managers he would not alter his approach in the playoffs. They agreed that he shouldn't.
Shanahan also has always said injuries will play a role in sentencing. As he once put it, "If there is an illegal hit, a lack of injury will not exonerate you, but the presence of an injury will get you more games." Generally Shanahan has been willing to suspend players for hitting the head or for boarding even if they don't cause injuries, but he has not suspended players for reactionary actions like slashing or punching unless they cause injuries. That's an important distinction.
There are some unsightly fine lines in the hockey world that will never translate to the public. Men who have played the game will tell you that there is a difference between trying to hurt an opponent and trying to injure him. Shanahan spent 21 seasons in the NHL. He fought. He scrummed. He knows.
Weber was lucky. Shanahan considered this "a reckless and reactionary play," not a premeditated attack. The initial punch was more dangerous than the shove, as ugly as the shove was. Weber took a big risk. Had that punch connected, had Zetterberg suffered concussion symptoms, Weber would have been suspended – and we might even be writing that a game would not be enough.
The Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith elbowed the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin in the head late in the regular season. Shanahan suspended Keith for five games. Keith is back. But Sedin is not, and the Canucks, the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, are now trailing their first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings, 1-0. It is an inexact science when it comes to concussions, which makes it an inexact science when it comes to disciplining based on them.
But that's why this stuff has to stop. By now players should know the dangers of concussions. By now they should know you just can't grab a guy's head and smash it into the glass. By now they shouldn't need to be fined first before they are suspended for such a deliberate act.
Shanahan should have been more assertive here because this was so clear, because the real goal is not to change the behavior of one player, but of all players. Why does the NHL need to threaten Weber for next time? Why wasn't the threat already there? Why isn't it there for everybody?