An important innovation was not on display at the NHL's research, development and orientation camp this week in Toronto, but will be on display throughout the upcoming season. It should clarify the rules for everyone, and it should help clear up some of the mystery and mistrust that has clouded the league's disciplinary process in the past.
The NHL has a new disciplinarian: Brendan Shanahan(notes). It has rewritten the rules regarding boarding and illegal checks to the head, broadening their scope. And now, every time Shanahan and his colleagues announce a suspension, they will release a video simultaneously explaining what they saw, everything they deliberated and why they settled on that certain sanction. It might be on a case-by-case basis, but they hope to release a video after each disciplinary hearing, not just each suspension, so they can give an explanation when they decide not to take action, too.
"You might not agree with our decision, but you're going to understand how we got to that decision," said Shanahan, the NHL's vice president of player safety and hockey operations. "This is not a black-and-white job. â¦ It's not completely predictive. But over a certain amount of time, I hope that they sort of start to understand what the strike zone is."
When the NHL announced suspensions in the past, the league put out a press release. Sometimes it included a quote from an executive explaining the rationale, sometimes not. Only occasionally would someone speak publicly.
That lack of communication hurt senior executive VP of hockey ops Colin Campbell, Shanahan's predecessor. It fed the perception that discipline was arbitrary. There were jokes about the NHL's "Wheel of Justice."
"We flip a coin," Campbell cracked amid criticism for inconsistency last November.
They did not flip a coin, of course. Campbell consulted his colleagues before making the final call, just as Shanahan will do. (Shanahan used to be one of Campbell's consultants; Campbell will be available if Shanahan calls on him.) Campbell looked at a variety of factors and did what he thought was right, just as Shanahan will do.
But it didn't matter.
"A lot of the things that we were always answering about at hockey ops was why was this player given two [games] and why was this player given four and why was there no suspension here or a fine here," said Kris King, the senior VP of hockey ops. "We didn't really feel it necessary to explain every single one, because every single one isn't the same."
That logic is being turned around now: It's necessary to explain every single one because every single one isn't the same.
Campbell's job became more challenging in recent years because of the concussion issue, the introduction of Rule 48 and advanced technology. Increased awareness about the dangers of head injuries led to increased sensitivity to hits to the head. Rule 48 banned lateral or blindside hits when the head was targeted and/or the principle point of contact. Everyone struggled to find the line. As with every other type of incident, critics used HD video, DVRs and YouTube to break down hit after hit and give their takes.
The concussion issue remains at the forefront. But with Shanahan playing a leading role, the league has made more rule changes to address the issue. And now Shanahan will use advanced technology to his advantage, releasing those explanatory videos to the public via NHL.com and NHL Network.
There will still be second-guessers, and the more information you give them, the more ammunition they will have to use against you. Hockey is a fast, fluid sport. Ask any group of hockey people to look at the same incident -- fans, players, coaches, executives -- and you're bound to get varied opinions.
"I have no doubt you're still going to see highlights and everybody's going to be debating body checks," said Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, a former teammate of Shanahan's who also helped rewrite the rules. " 'This should be a suspension.' 'This shouldn't be.' I don't think that's ever going to go away. â¦ You can't prevent every injury."
But while more information won't necessarily make everyone happy, it should make everyone more educated about the rules and their enforcement. It should inspire more faith in the integrity of the process. It's far better than a vacuum filled by misinformation.
"My hope is that we can work together to make things as black and white as possible," said Mathieu Schneider(notes), another former teammate of Shanahan's, now a special assistant to NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr. "I think in the past players have always seen a bit of a gray area and not always had everything explained to them. â¦
"I think it's important as a player that you understand clearly what you can and can't do on the ice -- what's a legal, what's an illegal hit. It's going to make the game better and more exciting, I think, and safer, more importantly."
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The day before the RDO camp, Shanahan and Schneider met about a video that will go out to the players and public before the upcoming season. It will introduce everyone to the league's new player safety department, what it does and how it will handle discipline. It will go on to explain the changes to the rules governing boarding and illegal checks to the head.
Shanahan knows how boring these videos can be. He remembers what it is like to be a player when the league wants you to watch something. You just got off the ice. You're tired and hungry. You've got places to go, people to see. The last thing you want to do is listen to some exec drone on about the rules.
Told he should get Jessica Biel to do the video to keep guys' attention, Shanahan smiled.
"Yeah," Shanahan said. "Farrelly brothers. They're going to produce it."
But this is serious. If Schneider appears on the video with Shanahan, it should help. Shanahan has worked closely with the union to get the players' input. Schneider said it should also help get the players to buy in, because they are being represented. This isn't the league preaching to them.
Shanahan will work out of New York, while hockey ops will remain in Toronto, reviewing video and identifying trends. Shanahan has his own team in player safety, including former NHL defenseman Rob Blake(notes), but will involve others in hockey ops.
The rule changes are significant. Boarding will be called when a player "checks or pushes a defenseless opponent" who impacts the boards "violently or dangerously." The words "lateral," "blindside" and "and/or" have been removed from Rule 48, which now outlaws contact to the head when it is "targeted and the principal point of contact." It will either be a minor or a match penalty, with no major in between.
Both rules ask the officials to consider whether the player being hit put himself in a "vulnerable position." You can leave yourself vulnerable by, say, keeping your head down. In other words, there are still situations in which you are responsible for protecting yourself. If you're defenseless, you could not be reasonably expected to avoid a hit.
The initial video will show examples of incidents but won't give corresponding punishments. X does not always equal Y. There are too many variables to consider on each play. But Shanahan said the video will outline the variables that will be considered, which include the score of the game, the time of the game, the past history of the player(s) and, yes, injury.
"The injury does play into the decision," Shanahan said. "But no injury doesn't necessarily get you off."
Shanahan has a mandate to issue stiffer suspensions. But don't expect Sheriff Shanahan to ride in on his white horse and clean up the town by waving a big stick. This is a former player who was suspended and fined several times himself. He understands what it's like to be disciplined, and he values physical play. What he wants to do is address dangerous plays and repeat offenders.
"I'm still a big believer that one- and two- and three-game suspensions for certain infractions to certain players are really effective teaching moments," Shanahan said. "Maybe a hockey play goes bad, or there's a play on the edge and something happens. A two- or three-game suspension has a devastating effect on them, and they change their behavior.
"There are other players that sort of seem to keep reappearing, and the communication I've had from players and the union -- for the sake of the game and the safety of the game -- those are the guys that might be dealt with a little bit harsher."
Shanahan, Blake and company will drive home their message by meeting with players in person as the season progresses.
"I don't think it's enough just to send them a DVD," Shanahan said. "I do think that there's got to be a time for some Q&A with the players."
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It is as inevitable as the first puck drop. Someone will be the first to break the new rules, or someone will break a longstanding rule severely. Shanahan will have to make his first decision. The first explanatory video will be released.
Everyone will be watching closely to see what kind of standard Shanahan sets, as a referee does early in a game. But more revealing will be Shanahan's body of work. We'll not only see what he does, but how he does it and why. Over time, it should paint a clearer picture.
"I'm going to really try my best to be very true to whatever incident occurs first -- and true to that incident as if I've been doing this job for 10 years -- and not make this about me and establishing a tone early," Shanahan said. "If I want to establish any tone early, I hope to establish fairness, transparency and a feeling that people in hockey know that I'm really dedicated to player safety."
Transparency is a tremendous start.
"I know he doesn't want to be the bad guy," Schneider said. "He will be. â¦ The buck stops somewhere. But the one thing is, you'll start to see a history of how Brendan's going to call things and the explanations. There are always going to be those hits that are like, 'Well, did it fall here? Did it fall here?' But I think at end of the day, it's going to make things a lot more clear for the players, for the fans, for the coaches, GMs, and make our game a better game."