Thu Jun 02 06:57pm EDT
In formally announcing on Wednesday that Colin Campbell was hanging up his sheriff's badge as the NHL's suspension czar, Commission Gary Bettman used the C-word — twice.
Not "controversy," which is an inherent part of the disciplinarian's gig but something Campbell's office seemed to create on a weekly basis through its inconsistent rulings.
Not "concussions," which have sparked a wave of medical and political changes to the NHL that, ironically, Campbell couldn't wrap his brain around.
The first C-word Bettman dropped in his speech was "clean," as in "clean slate." From Bettman:
"Both Colin and I believe that it is time to take a fresh look at the standards that we use, and if we're going to move to harsher discipline, that change needs to send a clear message, and we think it would probably be best to do it on a clean slate."
The second C-word Bettman used was something Campbell had fumbled away in the last several months, which is "credibility." It's something Bettman feels that Brendan Shanahan(notes), Campbell's replacement in the gig, brings to the job:
"Having Brendan, who only recently came off the ice after a wonderful career, will give us the adjustment and the focus and the credibility that this change will bring about."
Over the years, the NHL had gone to bat for Campbell. A lot. They'd call him a man of integrity, an unimpeachable and fair arbiter of justice.
But in that moment on Wednesday, Bettman admitted what so many of Campbell's critics had wailed about for the last few seasons: That his office had lost credibility. That the burden of faulty rulings and contradictory decisions had grown too heavy.
That Colin Campbell had to go, for the betterment of the NHL.
According to Bettman, Campbell came to him with the request to leave. It was back in March when the subject was first broached. Which means it was roughly four months after Campbell was nationally embarrassed — via email.
Tyler Dellow, a Toronto-based hockey blogger, pieced together a chain of emails from Campbell from several years ago to NHL executives that exposed candid comments about referees, penalties called on his son Gregory and candid criticism of Marc Savard(notes) of the Boston Bruins, whom he called "a little fake artist."
It's often said Colin Campbell is a man of integrity, but there's a difference between integrity and impartiality.
Maybe Campbell didn't actively seek to use his office to the betterment of friends or kin, or to punish players he didn't like as a coach. (He coached Savard as a 20-year-old rookie with the New York Rangers.) The emails didn't necessarily indicate that was his intent.
But they also indicated that his son and his former player were in his thoughts during conversations with the NHL's director of officiating. The notion that these biases could play into supplemental discipline were no longer outlandish to consider.
Campbell tried to explain it away as "locker room talk" and "much ado about nothing" but it wasn't. Fact is that his decision not to suspend Matt Cooke(notes) for the Marc Savard hit could never be seen as simply an interpretation of the rulebook, but rather a controversial ruling against a player he didn't like.
The sheriff's tin star had been officially tarnished. There was no going back.
In the coming months, things got really contentious. The best player in the NHL was felled by a concussion, on a pair of hits the NHL didn't punish. The head-shot debate raged intensely as Sidney Crosby(notes) was sidelined. The player safety issue was drowning out everything else in the League, especially after the Max Pacioretty(notes) incident. The inadequacies of Campbell's office to enforce suspensions and protect players was targeted by critics. The "Wheel of Justice" hypocrisy and politics were suddenly seen as the NHL's uncaring response to an epidemic.
Bettman's announcement on Wednesday can be seen as a direct response to that criticism. When "the terrorists were winning," the U.S. created a Dept. of Homeland Security; when concussions were overshadowing the on-ice product, the NHL created the Dept. of Player Safety. From Bettman:
"In addition to even better address player safety, an area in which we have consistently had a leadership role, particularly as it relates to concussions, I am creating effective after this season a new Department of Player Safety which will be headed by Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, Brendan Shanahan.
"In this revised role, Brendan will be responsible for developing rules related to better protecting our players without changing the fundamental nature of our game, dealing with equipment and safety issues related to equipment, and pursuant to a request made by Colin Campbell, Brendan will administer commissioner supplemental discipline. "
There are different magnitudes when it comes to conflict of interest. Campbell's was at the high end of the scale, with a son in the League. Shanahan's is more in line with those of NHL VP Mike Murphy(notes): Guilt by association. The first time Shanny has to rule on Steve Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning … it's the no-win scenario.
But the benefit of Shanahan is that his next ruling on Tampa Bay will be his first.
Ditto on the Flyers. Or Matt Cooke or Steve Downie(notes) or Trevor Gillies(notes). Bettman said the best way to move supplemental discipline forward was with a "clean slate," which is to say that Campbell's had become muddy and stained beyond recuperation.
There was too much history with Campbell. Too many moments of contradiction or hypocrisy. Too many opportunities for critics to play the equivocation game with previous rulings. This is a reboot for the NHL; like when a comic book company suddenly begins with Issue No. 1 again after 13 years of publishing a particular story arc.
You know why comic book companies pull that stunt? Because times change. Generations shift, as do societal norms. Ideals that seemed acceptable in decades past suddenly become unpalatable.
Campbell's an old school cat. In the last 13 years, he's watched yesterday's "hockey play" become today's "intent to injure another player's brain." He's seen "cobwebs" become concussions testing. He's had to rationalize behavior and play politics to the point of absurdity — that point being something called a "hitting zone" behind the net.
And this season, not coincidentally his last season, he watched a new rule banning blindside hits take hold.
From Campbell on Wednesday:
"Last year for the first time in the history of the game we said a legal hit, which was a legal hit in the past, shoulder to the head, is not legal in certain areas or circumstances. That was the blindside hit after the Savard Cooke and Booth Richards' hit.
"We went to another area this year. And no matter how well we defined it, how well we spelled it out, every time there was a hit, whether it was your group or an extension of your group or whoever, players, coaches, everyone: 'This is a head hit; a 'head shot' you would call it, whether it was a legal shoulder making contact with the head.
"So it has been a process. If there was an injury in those situations, it manifested itself further. It's an area we have to get our arms around. With Brendan, Steve Yzerman, Joe Nieuwendyk, Rob Blake(notes) and Rob Blake and Brendan have been part of Hockey Operations now, Brendan for two years and Rob Blake this last year it's been really good having players who just got off the ice and have a feel for it. And I think this is a natural progression to move this over. "
Campbell said he told Bettman in March that "it was time to have a fresh look and fresh eyes at the process of discipline."
This isn't a position that begs for a 13-year run — it's one that needs a term limit. Campbell's muddled history spawned the "Wheel of Justice" parody that characterized NHL supplemental discipline; that doesn't happen if there aren't over a decade of rulings from which to compare current ones.
This isn't a position that someone with a child playing in the NHL should inhabit. Gregory Campbell's(notes) first game in the NHL was on Oct. 18, 2003. Colin Campbell's last day as head disciplinarian should have come in the following season when his son was a regular for the Florida Panthers, heading off cries of bias and favoritism at the pass.
(We'd argue it's not a position for one man, either, and hopefully Shanahan opts for some kind of formal committee or panel.)
We're all part of the Suspension Culture in the NHL. Something happens on the ice. We run to YouTube to see it again. We go on Twitter or the blogs to play 'Guess The Suspension', talking more about precedent and intent than we do goals and assists. We wait with bated breath until McKenzie or Dreger tell us when the hearing is. The ruling comes down. We're either elated or outraged. Wash, rinse, repeat.
As fans, we facilitate this culture. It'll probably continue under Sheriff Shanahan. But its origins can be traced back to the inconsistent, hypocritical, political, often baffling rulings that originated from Colin Campbell's office. "Guess the suspension" became a form of scholarship, or legal proceedings; creating a perverse subset of fandom powered by bile fuel. And it detracted from the Game.
That's his legacy, in my eyes.
But now the slate's clean.