Just one month ago, NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan thought the players were starting to get it. He thought they were changing their behavior. He thought the game was moving in the right direction.
"I do take sort of offense when people say players don't respect each other, they no longer respect each other," said Shanahan at the NHL general managers' meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. "They really do."
I don't know if he can say that anymore. At least, I don't know if he can say that about the first five days of the playoffs. The NHL has gone over the edge at the most emotional, competitive time of year and descended into madness – head shots, cheap shots, fighting, hair-pulling, the kind of crap that gives everybody a black eye.
Even Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who sat out so long with a concussion, who brought awareness to brain injuries, has gotten in the middle of it. Not only has he fought himself, he has instigated and antagonized. He has done it on the ice and in the media.
There are a lot of kettles, and they're all black.
And so the NHL has to regain control. The officials have to break up these scrums to stop this stuff before it starts, and Shanahan has to be more assertive in supplemental discipline – starting today, when he sorts through the aftermath of Sunday's Penguins-Flyers Game 3 gong show.
Shanahan is in a no-win situation here. If he stays the course, critics will call him soft. If he goes hard, critics will call him inconsistent because he didn't go harder before. So he should forget the critics who will wail about whatever he does.
Forget the general managers, too. Shanahan tried to get ahead of playoff gamesmanship at the GMs’ meetings, using video examples to show the degrees of certain infractions – a minor, a major, a warning, a fine, a suspension. They liked the standard then. But they don't like it when it goes against their teams now, with the Stanley Cup on the line, not to mention jobs. They don't want players serving long suspensions until an opponent does something to their team.
Forget precedent if it doesn't apply. Shanahan's work has not been enough of a deterrent, at least in the amplified atmosphere of the playoffs, so he needs to go a step further. He already has said he will not let the past handcuff him.
"The one or two decisions that I have in the back of my head that I sort of think I missed, those are often the ones that people try to use as my precedent," said Shanahan at the All-Star Game in Ottawa. "And if I miss one, I miss one, and I'm not going to be bound by it. 'You know, you gave me four, and two months ago, you gave this guy two.' I'll say, 'I think I made a mistake.' "
I don't think Shanahan thinks he made a mistake when he decided to fine but not suspend the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber for his actions on opening night. I do think he's well aware that others, like me, think he made a mistake. I do think he knows critics are comparing that to the three suspensions that followed – two games to the Vancouver Canucks' Byron Bitz, one game to the Ottawa Senators' Matt Carkner, three games to the New York Rangers' Carl Hagelin – wondering what he was thinking.
Whether he was right or wrong with any of those decisions, Shanahan can learn from them and make better decisions going forward. Two wrongs – or three, or four, or five – will not make a right. They will make it worse.
Shanahan is trying hard. In fact, he might be trying too hard. As a former player – and one who hit and fought and received discipline – he breaks down each incident in great detail, tries to get inside the players' heads and tries to determine exactly what happened. He tries to be fair to everybody. Then he tries to translate the hockey world into the real world.
It doesn't always translate. Sometimes he misses the forest for the trees.
Take Weber. When he grabbed the head of the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg and shoved it into the glass, most of us, myself included, saw a black-and-white attempt to injure. Shanahan saw a shade of gray. Weber had just taken a hit from behind from Zetterberg, a hit that put his head into the glass, and his instantaneous reaction was to give Zetterberg a taste of his own medicine. His conscious thought wasn't to concuss Zetterberg. It looked worse than it actually was.
Because Zetterberg wasn't injured and Weber's record was relatively clean – only a fine for boarding, a different type of incident – Weber was fined. That meant Weber was on notice and would be suspended if he did something like that again, but it looked like nothing. Shanahan knew it would look like nothing. He still did what he thought was right. That takes integrity and guts. But it didn't get the job done.
Let's assume Weber didn't consciously intend to concuss Zetterberg. Shanahan's job is to make him conscious that what he intended could have injured. Shanahan's job also is to make sure other players know that kind of act can have stiff consequences. I don't think the decision to fine Weber directly led to the stuff in the other series. I don't think it helped, though.
Shanahan has to treat non-hockey plays more like hockey plays. Weber was fined for what he did, and Carkner got one game for pummeling the Rangers' Brian Boyle while Boyle declined to fight. Both were deliberate acts separate from the play, and Carkner's was premeditated. Bitz got two games and Hagelin three for hitting an opponent’s head during play, when players are making split-second decisions at high speed. Even considering the laws of the rink are different from the laws of the street, how can shoves and punches not be as bad as hits and elbows?
Which brings us to injuries. They are a big reason for the disparity in discipline, and they are playing too much of a role. Hagelin got the worst penalty of the bunch largely because he injured Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. Shanahan might argue that injuries are a more important factor in the playoffs, because if you injure someone, you're injuring someone on a team you're facing every second night. But the argument works the same way for intent to injure, doesn't it? You've got to get ahead of it, especially when it comes to the uncertain nature of concussions.
Look, supplemental discipline will always be subjective and controversial, no matter who does it, no matter how it is done – by another individual, by a panel, whatever. It is an impossible task to be consistent when everyone has his own view of what would constitute consistency. No two plays are the same. The sport has too many nuances. Even though he has explained every suspension via video, those nuances often get lost – even among the players, the ones Shanahan tries to reach most.
Too many guys aren't getting it, or they're forgetting it, or they're valuing it less than winning the Cup. Shanahan set out to change player behavior through education, not to make statements with stiff punishments. But if he doesn't make some statements with stiff punishments, how are these guys ever going to learn?
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