Now in his second season as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian and senior vice-president of player safety, Brendan Shanahan has no shortage of issues to deal with: there are new rules, changes to the suspension process and adjustment periods for virtually everyone involved in the league. The Hockey News spoke with Shanahan in late January to get the lowdown on the challenges ahead for the 44-year-old. Here is a full transcript of that conversation:
The Hockey News: With the shortened season, there has been an early acclimation period for players, coaches and officials. How have you seen the start of the season playing out?
Brendan Shanahan: From what I’m watching, your’e right, everybody has an adjustment period. Coaches feel it, players, officials. Even players who’ve played in Europe were playing on a different ice surface with a different speed and tempo. There’s nothing like the NHL, for anybody. But as a player, this is what I’d want – to get right into it.
THN: With no research and development camp this year, when it comes to changes to the game, how are you getting input on what works and what might need tweaking?
BS: The GMs are very good at monitoring that and they basically lived in the American League this year, and that’s the most comparable league to us. So I think our GMs are the ones who are the keepers of the game in that sense. There are other processes involved – the competition committee – as well. It’s so early right now to make those types of decisions.
THN: How did the process of getting players up to speed on rule changes – for example, the new penalty for closing a hand on the puck – work with the short turnover between the lockout and the start of the condensed season?
BS: There was a meeting during the lockout with players, some coaches, GMs and referees, and (NHL official) Colin Campbell’s group from hockey ops. The closing your hand on the puck rule was a change, but the rest of it was more a case of tightening up standards again. There was some discussion among some people that maybe the interference standard had slipped a little bit and people wanted to tighten it up. But for the closing your hand on the puck rule, it seemed to become a planned tactic. It was less of a scrambly way of finding a way to win and more of a ‘Here’s how I’m going to win each and every draw’ tactic. Closing your hand on the puck away from the faceoff was just an interpretation of the rule and the tightening of that standard.
THN: So in regard to interference, was that part of a bigger focus on obstruction, or was it more about interference on its own?
BS: It was most specific about dumping the puck in and being interfered with after you dump the puck past the defenseman. It wasn’t a rule change as much as a reset. It’s funny when you have those conversations about rules – you go in circles historically sometimes. I heard a conversation with someone who said if you hand-pass the puck at all in your zone, it should be a whistle or penalty. A penalty? Well, sometimes if the puck is up around your face, you have to bat it away with your hand. A whistle? I remember when if you were without your stick or your teammate didn’t have a stick, you’d just hand-pass the puck in order to get a whistle. Teams are competitive. Whatever rules are in today will always have to be monitored because players and coaches are intelligent and will always look for an advantage.
THN: With the new CBA being put together on the fly, how hard has it been for you to adjust to changes? The altered appeals process appears to be the most notable of the differences in your department, but are there other intricacies you have to be aware of?
BS: It really hasn’t been very much of an adjustment at all. In terms of the appeals process, it doesn’t change anything other than us possibly having to go and discuss our work with an arbitrator. Everything can be appealed to the commissioner, but any suspension of six games or more can be appealed beyond the commissioner to a neutral arbitrator. But we’ve always operated under the assumption any decision could be appealed. If someone wants to see the work, they’re welcome to. So our process is the same.
THN: Will that be one arbitrator throughout the life of the CBA, a rotating arbitrator or some other setup?
BS: I don’t know. Last I’d heard, the league and NHLPA were still working that out. That’s not something I was involved with or will be involved with.
THN: After the way your office has dealt with on-the-edge players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres, do you think there are still some NHLers who haven’t taken your expectations for on-ice respect and fair play to heart?
BS: I’ve always been of the belief this is really up to the players. If the culture is going to change, it has to come from within the players’ camp. The people in our department aren’t rule-makers, we’re former players in charge of making players abide by the rules they agreed to. Obviously, with that goes our judgments and interpretations. As far as the culture goes, hockey is a funny sport in that it’s so physical and we like that about it. But it would be difficult to explain to the average person what the difference is between wanting to hit someone and not wanting to injure them.
Part of this game is wanting to wear an opponent down, soften him up, intimidate him. But there’s a difference between a player being hurt and a player being injured. We’ve all had our moments of snapping, but nobody wants to see anyone get injured. I really think that’s been the culture going back as far as Ted Lindsay and some of the older greats: they were competitive, mean guys, but they also respected a man’s ability to earn a living and be safe and be able to get home at the end of the night and see his wife and kids. So I think that’s the culture of the game and it will always be up to the players.
THN: We didn’t hear anything in CBA negotiations about mandatory visors. Do you get the sense that will be coming anytime soon?
BS: That’s been a topic that’s been discussed since I was still playing and was a member of the competition committee. I can’t speak to the stats right now, but I remember when we polled the players, they were pretty overwhelmingly against mandatory visors. In a lot of issues, the split in opinion might have been 55/45 or 50/50. But for that issue – and I was in favor of grandfathering in visors – that was like 80/20 against. And I’m talking six or seven years ago. I don’t know where players stand on it now, but I expect there will continue to be a conversation about it. I don’t think it’s a CBA conversation, though.
THN: In terms of changes to concussion care – I did see some language in the new CBA where the league will be standardizing player health records and information. Can you discuss the way you see this issue evolving?
BS: It’s coming along, but there is continuing debate between players. If you talk to players in Buffalo, they’ve had a lot of success with a doctor who works on your neck and neck muscles. But guys like Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya have some different views on things. I don’t know that there’s a best practice when it comes to such an evolving issue. As a player, I’d always hoped that, even though what works for one guy might not work for me, I always wanted the option. There has been a lot of discussion about best practice and information sharing and that’s a good thing.
THN: Some people have suggested the league look into a mandatory sit-out period for any player diagnosed with a concussion. In mixed martial arts, for instance, any concussed athlete has to sit out for 30 days. Former NHLer Alyn McCauley told me he thought even a week on the sidelines would only result in a few missed games for players, but it might prevent the quick second-concussion that hampered Sidney Crosby’s health. Your thoughts on that?
BS: I think it’s something that still has to be talked about. The more I hear, though, the more I think we’re in a position where we have enough caregivers for each team and each player that I don’t know if there needs to be a blanket rule for a population. I saw certain players I played with get hit so hard and they were fine. I saw other guys get hit not so hard and have issues. I think the new cautionary approach we have is good and we should always err on the side of caution, but I still feel like I don’t want someone else’s rules applying to me. I might want to sit out longer than a week, if that was what was mandated.
But I think one of the reasons why each year concussions have been growing steadily over the past few years is that our reporting of concussions is up and our diagnosis is more aggressive.
When I played, nobody really knew about concussions back then. Someone would ask how you’re feeling and you’d say ‘Well, I’ve got cobwebs, just give me a minute,’ or ‘Give me some smelling salts’. Those days are gone. And though we’re in the midst of this time where diagnosis is as aggressive as it’s ever been, our concussion totals were down last year. And I like the fact we’re not fearing the safe approach.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
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