Late last year, the National Hockey League's most notorious rule-breaker flew to New York City for a meeting with the League's new head of supplemental discipline.
For once, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn't on trial for an injurious, illicit act on the ice; in fact, newly named NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan was determined to educate Cooke on how to avoid them.
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"Matt Cooke and I had a conversation at the start of the year, and for the most part it's held true," said Shanahan. "If he's coming up on a hit, and he thinks it's 50/50 [as far as legality], he knows he's not going to throw that hit."
Cooke has continued to talk to Shanahan about the NHL's player safety standards, and the reinforced rules on checks to the head and boarding calls that were added in 2011. So did the Philadelphia Flyers, regarding one of their hardest hitting players.
"Philadelphia told me about Zac Rinaldo," said Shanahan. "He's a really big hitter. Hits hard. But they said to him that if you see 20 hits a game in your head, pick the best three. That's enough to be a physical, intimidating player in this League. When I hear coaching like that, that's when I'm thinking there's full buy-in there."
Shanahan is entering his fifth month as the League's head disciplinarian. He and fellow player safety official Rob Blake tote around their iPads to dinner and around the house each game night, looking at between 4-5 questionable acts on average. Some are deemed legal; others begin the supplemental discipline process.
Since Sept. 20, the Department of Player Safety has handed out 35 suspensions and 19 fines, accounting for well over $1 million in money collected. Players ranging from Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares to Dan Carcillo and Brad Marchand have been castigated.
Whether it's the frequency of suspensions, the comprehensive video explanations that Shanahan hosts or simply players slowly understanding the League's new rules and player safety philosophy, Shanahan's starting to see the seeds that the NHL's planted take root.
"We're not in the business of punishing. We're trying to change behavior," he said.
"I think it's harder to hit [in the NHL]. I think people are starting to see that hitting really well is an art form."
So how has Shanahan fared in his first half-season on the job, after replacing Colin Campbell last year? He admits there have been good calls but also "mistakes" from his department.
"If I feel like I've made a bad decision — if I was light on a guy or hard on a guy — the one or two decisions that I think I missed are the ones that people try to use as my precedent," said Shanahan, speaking after the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Ottawa last weekend. "If I miss one, I miss one. And I'm not gonna be bound by it. If someone says, 'You gave me four but last month you gave this guy two,' … I think I made a mistake.
"What I say to players when I meet with them is that you'd all love to play a perfect season. Your coach would love to coach a perfect season. Your GM would love to never make a mistake on a signing. And I would love to have a perfect season, and I won't. But I'll strive for that," he said.
"If we do make a mistake, whether it's glaringly high or glaringly low, our work is there for everyone to see. [And] I take the work to heart. My training as a player has taught me to move on."
One of the keys for the Department of Player Safety is to make sure players suspended or fined don't simply move on. That they understand why a decision was made, and that begin to grasp the type of hitting the NHL wants in and out of its product.
"The feedback I get from players is that it shows the transparency. Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, I think it shows the level of work that we put into it. And it actually forces us to be better. If we can't prove it on a video … using video forces us to ask ourselves those questions," said Shanahan.
"Sometimes when players or teams come out and say 'that's not an illegal hit,' the video shows that it was. But when we hear from a player or manager that reveals something to us that we haven't seen … sometimes the pressure to make a compelling video works in the player's favor. I've had five or six hearings where the player didn't get suspended. "
In other words: If the video doesn't show it, then it becomes difficult to prove it happened.
The videos have worked as a way to educate those in the NHL and those who watch the NHL about the League's rules and new expectations for hits. They highlight nuances, point out things the layman may have missed. But they're also like mini-documentaries produced subjectively: a suspension's been handed out, and here's the justification for it.
Like, for example, the Brad Marchand clipping of Sami Salo: