Shanahan set for crackdown on NHL rule breakers

Oct 5 2011 - 4:51pm

Brendan Shanahan never won the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded to an NHL star exhibiting sportsmanship and gentlemanly play.

He was suspended five times during his 21-year, Hall of Fame-bound career.

Shanahan was even suspended for a cross-check he delivered in his Detroit debut. Hi and bye all at once.

For the most part, Shanahan knows he merited his punishments.

"I certainly did some things that deserved suspensions and certainly did some things I wanted to take back," Shanahan said. "Sometimes with the passion and the speed of the game, things happen. That experience has taught me that I do believe players have respect for one another. Sometimes it's just the environment of the game, and how things can get away from people a little bit."

This season, that reasoning sounds like a perfect defense for an accused player about to plead his case to Shanahan.

Shanahan is judge and jury of his former peers in his first year as the NHL's head disciplinarian, reviewing cases of the scores of rule-breaking players who aim for the head or commit various other infractions. His grace period in his new job lasted about as long as a power-play shift.

He's become the stern-faced spokesman for the NHL rule book, suspending this preseason a whopping nine players for a total of 31 regular-season games. On the eve of the NHL season, Shanahan has swiftly made his mark as a discipline czar whose wants to protect the best interests of the sport he loves and respects -- even if he loses a popularity contest to make his mark.

Shanahan is not out to make a kindler, gentler NHL.

Just a safer one.

"The focus has gone on the players that we've punished, and I understand that," Shanahan said. "But from my perspective, it's about the ones we intend to protect. That's important to me."

Shanahan, who took over for Colin Campbell, has already revolutionized the job and created a more transparent process with videotaped explanations that should allow the rest of the league, fans and media to form a logical understanding of his decisions.

Take his video (found on video.nhl.com or linked through Twitter.com/NHLShanahan) on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur's preseason plus two regular-season game suspension for hitting Detroit's Justin Abdelkader in the head.

Shanahan describes the play over video of the act. The video cuts to a written explanation of the rule 48.1 (Illegal check to the head). "A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head, where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact, is not permitted."

He then refers for additional clarification to the rules and regulation video, "that all NHL players were required to watch." Shanahan explained MacArthur's hit was not intentional and -- combined with the facts that MacArthur didn't have a previous history, and Abdelkader wasn't injured -- meant the penalty would not be as harsh as it would be for a repeat offender.

All summed up in 90 seconds for everyone to see.

"I think that's the best part," Bruins forward Milan Lucic said. "He's clarifying things. It's more black and white. Videos don't lie. How are you going to complain if the evidence and the video is there."

In a mostly thankless role, however, there are bound to be complaints.

Shanahan's punishments are mostly a reaction to the sensitive nature of crushing blows to the head.

A year ago, the NHL banned blindside shots to the head. The rule was expanded this season to include penalties for any hit that involves primary contact to the head and shots that target an opponent's head and make it the principal point of contact. The original wording to Rule 48 applied only to hits that came from the lateral or blindside. Those words have been eliminated. The ban applies to hits anywhere on the ice and from any direction.

It means Columbus Blue Jackets forward James Wisniewski gets nailed for eight regular-season games for his shot to the head of Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck.

It means Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith gets suspended for the first five regular-season games for an illegal hit to the head of Chicago forward Ben Smith.

NBC's Mike Milbury complained that enforcement of some of these rules means the league could turn into "touch football."

"I think if this goes the way it's going right now, it'll do more than if they took fighting out of the game," Milbury said. "People don't want to lose tens of thousands of dollars, going out for 10 and 20 games for what have been, sometimes, really vicious hits and sometimes questionable calls, in my opinion."

Shanahan insists there is a way to mix safety and physical play.

He is still learning about a new job he needed two months to decide to accept after Campbell stepped down after 13 years in the high-profile position.

But it's just the kind of job that suits his style.

Shanahan conducted a summit during the NHL's 2004-05 lockout, and that gathering of people from all aspects of hockey produced several suggestions that led to rules changes after a new collective bargaining agreement was reached.

Shanahan said he has never considered his various roles as a sense of service in hockey, only a commitment to making the NHL a better product.

"I'm protective of the people who play it," he said.

He played it as well as anyone around.

Shanahan joined the NHL front office as vice president of hockey and business development less than a month after he retired as a three-time Stanley Cup champion. The eight-time All-Star played on the Red Wings' Stanley Cup championship teams in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He also won a gold medal with Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

His resume earns him credibility.

His decisions could only strengthen the NHL.

"It was just too important of an endeavor to say no to," he said.

 

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