NEWARK, N.J. – Last June 1, Brendan Shanahan was introduced as the NHL's new disciplinarian at the Stanley Cup Final. He stood next to his predecessor, Colin Campbell, and said "we all do owe him a great deal of thanks."
"You won't be thanking me next year at this time," Campbell cracked.
Well, here is Shanahan a year later, saying the same thing he said when commissioner Gary Bettman tapped him to lead the league's new department of player safety: For all the crap that comes with the job, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a difference.
And despite all the criticism Shanahan has received, his group is making one.
"All the things I heard about the challenges of the job were true," he said. "But we knew that going in, and we don't spend any hours of the day feeling sorry for ourselves. We feel that we've got a very important initiative, and we work really hard to sort of try and maintain that. And it's early in the process still. But I see a lot more positive from players than maybe other people notice."
It's one thing to know what you're getting into. It's another to live on this job and learn on this job, especially when you were a charismatic superstar as a player and you used to have a feel-good role with the league, running the research and development camp, coming up with the Fantasy Draft and the new format for the All-Star Game, giving input on sticky stuff only behind closed doors. Shanahan accepted the role of The Bad Guy; he still has had to grow into it.
"I've definitely been told from the very beginning to grow a thick skin," Shanahan said. "You're going to upset your friends. You're going to upset people that you respect and people whose opinion you care about."
Shanahan has deserved some heat. He ain't perfect, and he knows it. But let's keep a few things in perspective, as he has tried to do.
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You can reasonably criticize the consistency of his rulings. You cannot reasonably criticize the consistency of his approach. He set out to keep the game physical while making it safer. He set out to change player behavior primarily through education. He did not set out to take the hitting out of hockey and to make statements with harsh punishments. He examines the details and judges each incident on its own merits, trying to get inside the players' heads. When he errs, it's usually because he thinks too much like a player and misses the big picture, but it's in an effort to be fair.
He makes the final call and the public explanation, but he does not work alone. When he uses the word "we," it is not a royal "we" or an attempt to deflect accountability. His department has three people who monitor games and clip every incident that is even close to questionable. When a hit is flagged, he surveys the opinions of his partners – Rob Blake, Stephane Quintal and Damian Echevarrieta – as well as Campbell, Mike Murphy and Kris King in hockey operations. (Campbell does not weigh in on the Boston Bruins, because his son Gregory plays for them.) Each emails Shanahan directly with no carbon copies, so no one influences anyone else. Shanahan decides if there is a hearing, and if there is one, he and his partners participate and deliberate before he makes the decision.
"That's the one thing that allows us to put our head on the pillow," Shanahan said. "We do this with honesty, we do this with integrity, and we do this to the best of our ability. And I'm confident in our ability."
When people say Shanahan is inconsistent, it means only so much. Taken as a whole, the criticism is inconsistent itself – not just among the media, but among executives, coaches and players.
Every play is different, and everybody has his own view. Few study the rules, the nuances and the history as well as Shanahan and his partners do. Not enough people pay attention to the video explanations of the suspensions, at least on an ongoing basis, and instead of being a revolutionary tool of transparency and education, they have been twisted at times and used against Shanahan. "This has been turned into more of an event than we would like," Bettman said.
People have different perspectives about how the game should be played. People have different agendas. That colors everything. This is a passionate, competitive business, and Shanahan gets that. He used to rack up penalty minutes, draw supplemental discipline and spout off about the league office himself. "When I was a player, I had probably lots of comments on it as well," he said. All the more reason to take it for what it's worth.
"You do get to a certain point where you start to say, 'Oh, yeah, I was told that was going to happen, and it did,' " Shanahan said, smiling, a little. "Look, what we're trying to accomplish in player safety and health – the future health of our players, the future health of our game – is more important than our feelings or me being popular, or Rob or Quintal or Damian.
"We stick with it because this guy might think we're idiots tonight, the next night he thinks we're brilliant. People are entitled to their opinions. We really don't react to that. We respond to direction, constructive criticism, knowing that lots of times you're just going to hear angry people."
A lot of people were angry in the first round. Frankly, Shanahan was angry, too. There were incidents all over the place, and some said Shanahan's rulings were all over the place. The game was supposed to be falling apart. But the game didn't fall apart, and neither did Shanahan. The first round is often the craziest. Things settled down.
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"Honestly, in moments like that, you go back to your training as a player," Shanahan said. "When the game got most difficult, what did you do? Did you skate off the ice or leave the game, or did you dig in and claw back? … To me when you go through those difficult moments where you're having to dig in, that makes it feel like it's a job that's an important and difficult job that is worth having."
Bettman said concussions have declined modestly during the 2011-12 season and playoffs, the first drop in three years, all while the diagnosis of the injury has become more aggressive and the treatment more conservative. It's hard to read too much into that because the league refuses to provide hard data, and Bettman is obviously going to frame this in the most positive light possible. But that doesn't mean he's lying.
And while the problem continues to plague the league – sorry to say, it's never going to go away – it's not just spin to say that players are changing their behavior. They haven't changed enough yet, and they might change more if they fear stiffer punishments in the future. But Shanahan can show you plenty of examples on video of players hitting differently than they used to or letting up in certain situations, if you're interested.
The supplemental discipline system could look different in the next collective bargaining agreement. The players' union might push for that in labor negotiations, especially with the appeals process. With appeals going to Bettman, there might as well not be an appeals process. We'll see. But as of now, Shanahan is only one year into this job. He's just getting started.
"I'm still committed to this," Shanahan said, "as everyone in our department is."
Thank goodness someone is willing to be.
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