Stephane Quintal introduced himself to the NHL’s board of governors Tuesday in New York. His presentation boiled down to this: He is the new senior vice-president of player safety, but as he told Yahoo Sports in an interview afterward: “This is not new.”
Quintal played more than 1,000 games in the NHL. He started at the department of player safety when it was formed in 2011-12. He worked with his predecessor, Brendan Shanahan, and the rest of the group – part of every hearing, part of every decision, part of every board and general managers meeting. He was the NHL’s disciplinary representative at the Sochi Olympics, and he handled discipline in the playoffs after Shanahan left to become president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Shanahan is gone, and so is Brian Leetch. But Damian Echevarrieta will continue to run the video room, Patrick Burke will continue to increase his role and ex-players are interviewing for jobs in the department. Some of them, Quintal said, are “big names.”
The philosophy will stay the same. The process will stay the same. The standard will stay the same.
“We have a great team,” Quintal said. “That’s basically what I said. I just tried to reassure the board that nothing’s going to really change.”
Maybe that doesn’t reassure you. Maybe when you hear nothing’s going to change, you take that as a negative. Personally, I think more needs to change, starting with stiffer suspensions.
But consider how much has changed over the past three years – the rules, the enforcement, the communication. More dangerous plays are illegal, such as a hit in which the head is the main point of contact and was avoidable. The process is consistent, even if the results sometimes don’t seem to be on the surface. It’s transparent, when it was opaque in the past.
And remember that the department of player safety doesn’t make rules or guidelines for punishments. It enforces the rules and follows the guidelines made by the general managers in conjunction with the players through the competition committee.
The job isn’t just to fine and suspend; it’s to educate. The goal is to change behavior – to keep speed and physicality but reduce risk.
Behavior is changing. Concussions are down, at least from their elevated levels. They declined by “moderate to low double-digits as a percentage” last season and man-games lost to them declined by “probably about half,” according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
There is still a long way to go – and the NHL will never reach perfection – but the trend is in the right direction. Promoting Quintal, said deputy commissioner Bill Daly, sent a “message of stability.”
“What the department needs is just an honest leader who has a good feel for the game and is not afraid to make difficult decisions – but also somebody that can keep the team together,” Shanahan said. “I think that’s probably why he was chosen, for all those reasons. …
“He’s just a man with a ton of integrity. He’s a loyal guy, and he’s the kind of guy that will support you but also will tell you when he disagrees with you. You know with Stephane that there’s never any sort of politicking. He is an absolutely true person.”
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Shanahan and Quintal played for the St. Louis Blues in 1991-92 and ’92-93. Shanahan called Quintal “one of the best teammates” he had because of the way he played the game and carried himself off the ice. They stayed in touch over the years. If they found themselves in the same city, they might grab dinner.
In April 2011, they grabbed dinner in Montreal during a first-round playoff series between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins. Shanahan was working for the NHL but hadn’t yet been named the league’s disciplinarian. Quintal had gone into business but was interested in getting back into hockey. Shanahan told him maybe they should talk again that summer.
Bettman announced at the Stanley Cup Final that Shanahan would lead the league’s new department of player safety. As Shanahan and Echevarrieta looked for candidates for the team, Quintal’s name kept coming up – on a list of retired players provided by the NHL Players’ Association, in a suggestion from a friend of Bettman’s.
“Here was a guy I considered a good friend, and I wasn’t going to other people and saying, ‘I really want to hire this guy,’ ” Shanahan said. “They were coming to me. It just sort of fell in my lap. I didn’t think most people would want to do it, and he was looking to work, and I couldn’t think of a better guy to be a part of our team.”
Quintal joined the department in November 2011. He said he didn’t really know what to expect, but he had a passion for the game. He learned how it operated. Not only would he go to board of governors or GM meetings, he would ask Daly or chief operating officer John Collins if he could sit in on everyday meetings at NHL headquarters.
“As a player, you take a two-hour nap, you show up at the game with a coffee and you don’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes,” Quintal said. “There’s a lot of people working at the NHL that put the game on. So I got to know all that. It was a great experience.”
Shanahan said almost the exact the same thing after he joined the NHL. He worked at the league for one-and-a-half years before he became the disciplinarian, and among the reasons he got the job were these: He was a high-profile ex-player. He could communicate well. He knew the rules – written and unwritten – and could command the respect of players and executives. He had fought. He had been suspended himself.
Quintal is a lower-profile ex-player, and French is his first language. But Shanahan was hired when the department had just been created and suspension videos were an innovation. If you watched carefully, Shanahan introduced himself on the videos, then just went right into the voiceovers, then didn’t do the voiceovers at all. When the process needed a face, he was out front. As it developed, he faded into the background.
Expect Quintal to stay in the background for the most part. He will continue to do voiceovers in French, but Burke will continue to do them in English. But like Shanahan, Quintal has served his apprenticeship with the league and can communicate well. His English is good. He knows the rules – written and unwritten – and can command respect from players and executives.
Quintal fought more than 100 times in his career, taking on the likes of the late Bob Probert. He racked up more than 1,300 penalty minutes. He was suspended once by Colin Campbell for kneeing a guy in the head in a fight. He was on other side once, too, taking a head-butt in a fight that got his opponent suspended. He suffered at least one concussion after the NHL started tracking them in the late 1990s. How many he suffered before that he doesn’t know.
“I know for a fact that he already had a few dustups with general managers and stood his ground,” Shanahan said. “What people have to remember is, Stephane is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and was as tough as they come when he played.”
Quintal acknowledged arguing with GMs, but he said they were always respectful.
“It was more like a good, healthy conversation,” Quintal said. “They’re fighting for their players, which I get. Most of the time, we see the play differently.”
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This is a team sport – hockey, discipline. The department of player safety has a group of people who watch every second of every game. If a play is even borderline, the video is clipped and moved up the chain of command. The first question is whether the play rises to the level of supplemental discipline. If the answer is yes, the next question is punishment.
There are often internal debates. But the buck stops with the boss.
“There’s always going to be a name or a person who’s going to take the brunt of the responsibility, and there are times when he’s going to have to break a tie or go with his gut and go against the group,” Shanahan said. “Ultimately, his signature is going to be at the bottom of these decisions.”
When Shanahan left in April, it was abrupt. The NHL turned to Quintal, but he hadn’t expected Shanahan to leave and had never been in charge before, let alone during the playoffs. It was on an interim basis. Daly became more involved than usual. The NHL didn’t announce Quintal had the permanent job until Sept. 8, after interviewing other candidates.
“I think he had some growing to do,” Daly said. “It was in a new role in terms of making the decisions. And I can tell you because I kind of witnessed it first-hand, he grew into that role very, very quickly, and I thought did a fantastic job at the most difficult time in the season in terms of being decisive, being thoughtful. His interactions with clubs, I thought, were excellent. And while we as an organization felt we had an obligation and a duty to kind of search and explore whether another candidate might be best for the job, ultimately … it was a fairly easy decision to continue with Steph.”
“I knew the job,” Quintal said. “I knew what we had to do. What Brendan put in place with his vision, we’re thinking the same way about player safety in hockey in general. I think that’s why it worked out. When I got the opportunity to do it, I did it.”
This is a brutal, thankless, important job. You have to work long hours, make hard decisions and take abuse – not just from the fans and media, but from your peers in the hockey world. The best compliment you can get is usually … silence.
But you can make an impact and set yourself up for the future. Quintal, who turns 46 on Oct. 22, enjoys educating – teaching at the rookie symposium, calling young players to warn them when they make a hit that doesn’t quite rise to the level of supplemental discipline. He knows this job could lead to another, but he’s focused on this and this alone.
“I might do it for a long time,” Quintal said. “But right now I would say three to five years.”
This is Shanahan’s advice:
“I would just say pay attention to the details, but stay focused on the big picture,” Shanahan said. “I got some good advice before I started, which was, ‘At the end of the night, you have to rest your head on the pillow, so make every decision based on what you think is right and not what other people think is right. Trust your team, but trust what you think is the right decision and do it.’ ”