VANCOUVER – This is what I respect most about Brendan Shanahan(notes) as he becomes the NHL's new dean of discipline: He's putting his popularity at risk. Actually, I think it's safe to say he's sacrificing it.
Shanahan is one of the good guys. He was a charismatic player who amassed Hall of Fame credentials, cracking one-liners and one-timers with equal ease. After he retired in 2009, he could have gone in any direction if he wanted to stay in hockey – TV analyst, team executive, union leader – but joined the league office so he could continue to shape the sport.
The man who organized the Shanahan Summit during the 2004-05 lockout, a brainstorming session that led to rule changes that transformed the game, he became the NHL's vice-president of hockey and business development. It was a feel-good job – running the research and development camp, coming up with the Fantasy Draft and a new format for the All-Star Game, giving input on player safety, supplemental discipline and other issues. But that was really an apprenticeship to prepare him for this.
Now he has to be the bad guy, now he has to make people feel bad, now he has to take the bad with the good, and he knows it. Goodness knows he was reminded on Wednesday of what a thankless job this will be, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced he would become vice-president of player safety and hockey operations, taking the disciplinarian role from senior executive VP of hockey ops Colin Campbell starting next season. But Shanahan thinks it will be worth it.
"I don't know that every day is going to be an easy one," Shanahan said. "I certainly was made well aware before I accepted the position all the different hurdles that are there. But again, it's just very important to me. It's too important for me to pass up an opportunity to hopefully have an impact on this great game and on the players that play it."
Shanahan is the best man for the job.
Some will argue that the NHL should have hired someone from the outside, someone without even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and that argument has merit after Campbell's reign. As much as I truly believe Campbell acted with integrity and wanted to do the right thing, there is no denying that having a son playing in the NHL was a perception problem. It was highlighted by the email expose earlier this season, and it's highlighted now that the league's top disciplinarian must recuse himself from the league's top event, the Stanley Cup Final, because son Gregory Campbell(notes) plays for one of the teams involved, the Boston Bruins.
But if you're going to get someone with an intimate understanding of the game, you're going to have to accept at least some perceived conflict of interest. The most qualified person in that context is going to have connections and history. Shanahan understands what's happening on the ice and off of it. He scored 656 goals and won three Stanley Cups; he also racked up 2,489 penalty minutes, complained about the officiating and faced supplemental discipline himself. He helped rewrite the new rules; he also played under them. He has the "fresh eyes" Campbell said the league needs. It's going to be sticky if and when Shanahan has to suspend, say, a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose general manager is former teammate Steve Yzerman. So be it.
"You assume that Steve and I are still friends," Shanahan cracked.
Good to see he hasn't lost his sense of humor. Yet.
Some will argue that the NHL needed to institute a panel to handle disciplinary decisions, but I'm not sure a panel is practical. I wonder if those same people would rail against a lack of transparency and accountability a panel would have by its very nature. And the thing is, the NHL already has operated with a de facto panel. When making tough decisions, Campbell and senior VP of hockey operations Mike Murphy(notes) often consulted a cross-section of people – other league execs, general managers, even players. But the buck has to stop somewhere.
"At the end of the day, someone has to make a decision," Campbell said. "That will be Brendan's job now."
Shanahan will face the same challenges Campbell did in his later years. No longer can the league's disciplinarian rule like an old-school sheriff, using instinct and experience as much as anything, handing down decisions with relatively little blowback, barking at an offending party and letting it all blow over. This is the modern world and a modern game.
Now we have high-definition television, super-slow-motion replays and YouTube, allowing everyone to dissect each split-second of each play, compare play to play, and point out inconsistencies from ruling to ruling. Hockey has always been a game of gray areas, but now there is more speed and hitting than ever before. Now there are controversies over concussions and the new rule banning blindside hits to the head – how it should be defined and applied. The general managers have said they want stiffer suspensions, and they have the good of the game at heart in a broad sense. But they have games to win and agendas when it comes to individual incidents.
That's where it's going to get really tough for Shanahan. Criticism in the media is one thing. Criticism from your peers is another. How is Shanahan going to feel when he starts getting flak publicly and privately from players, coaches and GMs – the people he respects the most, the people whose respect he values the most? I think he can handle it. I don't think he'll find it fun.
Where Shanahan might make the biggest improvement is communication. Campbell struggled to express himself and got himself into trouble sometimes. Shanahan is articulate and savvy. First he needs to better define the rules and standard of enforcement, and he said he would be "as over-thoughtful and over-inclusive" as he could be to find a consensus. Then he needs to educate everyone from the players to the public, explaining how he has made his decisions and why.
"I think it's important to state that I do love the physical aspect of hockey," Shanahan said. "It's a very difficult and fine balance to keep that in the game, to allow players to play on their toes, but at the same time for them to know what they can and can't do."
Shanahan said he would make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Then he gave an intriguing quote: "I will promise you that when I do make those decisions, I will try to make my thought process and everything that went into that thought process very clear and very visible to the entire hockey world."
People like me would love it if Shanahan conducted a media conference call for each suspension, and he should allow independent media more of an opportunity to ask questions about the supplemental discipline process. But that might not make sense on a day-to-day basis, and he can turn the tables on the digital age and use it to his own advantage, too.
The league has NHL.com and the NHL Network at his disposal. He can use text and video to get his message out on those platforms, and he should. Often. He's still going to face criticism, still going to be the bad guy, but at least everyone will have a better understanding of what went into his decision-making.
At one point Wednesday, Shanahan said history would show that Campbell had been "a great innovator for the game of hockey and we all do owe him a great deal of thanks." Standing next to him, Campbell cracked: "You won't be thanking me next year at this time." Maybe not. Probably not. But that's all the more reason we should be thanking Shanahan now.