The NHL's dean of discipline was roundly criticized throughout his 13-year tenure dispensing justice in an often inconsistent and sometimes downright puzzling fashion.
All of that was supposed to change this season with Brendan Shanahan taking over as vice president of player safety. And give Shanahan some credit — he has lived up to his word to bring more transparency to the process, releasing video explanations of each of his decisions.
It's just that those decisions, much like his predecessor's, have left a lot to be desired at times.
Shanahan may be guilty of going overboard in trying to correct the previous regime's penchant for inaction (Matt Cooke skating away scot-free for the cheap shot that likely ended Marc Savard's career, anyone?) with his zealous prosecutions this season.
Shanahan has been anything but shy in handing out suspensions, issuing nine bans totaling 28 exhibition games and 32 regular-season contests during the preseason alone. But overreacting in the other direction with such a draconian response causes its own problems.
Many in the game feel that in his effort to take dangerous head shots and hits from behind out of the game, Shanahan's punishments are also leading to a dramatic decrease in even clean hits. Some players have voiced that concern, and last week on the Hot Stove segment of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, the Calgary Sun's Eric Francis reported that a group of general managers has already gone to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to complain about the harshness of Shanahan's suspensions because they fear this crackdown will eliminate hitting from the game completely.
Nobody wants to see the dangerous hits continue and players have their careers, and their quality of life away from the rink, impacted by such cheap shots. But hockey is still a contact sport and the physical side to the game is one of its greatest selling points. The NHL can't afford to lose that aspect of the sport, and it certainly can't afford to lose the fans that such changes could drive away.
The backlash was strong enough that Shanahan even released another video last week trying to show that plenty of hitting remains in the game, though it's interesting to note that more than half of the video is examples of players letting up on hits to avoid penalties (and calls from Shanahan).
Shanahan's crusade has seemed to slow a bit since the regular season began. He's issued just one suspension in the first nine days of the season. That may have been his most controversial ban yet, though, as he suspended Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard two games for high-sticking Columbus' Matt Calvert, despite video evidence that Calvert actually lifted Bouchard's stick into his own face. That decision was called a "shameful farce" by Bouchard's agent, Allan Walsh.
Shanahan also displayed some of his predecessor's penchant for inconsistency when he chose not to suspend Blue Jackets defenseman Marc Methot for boarding Vancouver's Henrik Sedin (though admittedly Brad Marchand probably approved of that ruling). And the Rangers' Mats Zuccarello was given just a $2,500 fine and no suspension for a dangerous cross-check from behind that sent Los Angeles forward Kyle Clifford crashing into the boards.
That decision reveals two major issues remaining with the NHL's justice system. First, there's the blatant double-standard where the NHL works from very different rulebooks when dealing with the stars of the league and players known for their physical play. Philadelphia enforcer Jody Shelley was given 10 games for a boarding incident in the preseason, and Calgary tough guy Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond received five games for a boarding call that drew only a minor penalty in the game. At the same time, offenses committed against players in that role have a habit of going unpunished, as Zuccarello's cheap shot on Clifford (4th in league with 18 fighting majors last year) drew barely a slap on the wrist.
Zuccarello's punishment also shows a major flaw in the system. By the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, $2,500 is the maximum a player can be fined. That provides even more incentive to hand out suspensions, as that is really the only true punishment available.
That CBA, by the way, expires after this season, and the league's right to unilaterally impose such discipline could become one of the major areas of contention in trying to hammer out a new deal. In an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada Radio earlier this week, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr addressed the union's concerns over the current disciplinary system.
"Basically, you have a situation in which you have discipline involved, it's a modification of a player's contract. You don't get to work and you don't get to get paid," Fehr said. "Normally when someone wants to modify your contract, you have resort to some sort of impartial mechanism to decide if that guy is right. If somebody wants to throw you out of your apartment, you can contest it. If you get a parking ticket, you can contest it. And it's not the same person who levies the penalty who gets to decide whether you're right and it's not somebody with whom he works, that gets to decide if you're right. So that's an issue."
As Shanahan's troubled early tenure is showing, the best solution to balancing the desire for increased player safety with the need to avoid completely neutering the sport may rest with an independent committee handling discipline.
In the meantime, Shanahan should at least be commended for continuing to explain his decisions on video, even if some of those rulings may be questionable at times. Let's hope he'll have to make a lot less of them as the season progresses.