Near the tail-end of the Colin Campbell “Wheel of Justice” era of NHL discipline, I wrote a piece on operant conditioning and how Campbell and the league could change their policies if they truly wanted to affect behavior change.

In the article I noted the that there are powerful incentives for hockey players to engage in violence: approval from fans and coaches alike, career advancement, etc. As such, any discipline policy would have to be sufficiently principled to combat the many incentives skaters have to try to hurt their peers.

Three relevant factors of that alter the effect of consequences are:

1.) Immediacy

2.) Contingency

3.) Size

Immediacy is the length of time the consequence follows the targeted behavior. The larger the gap between the two, the less effective the consequence is in affecting the behavior. Contingency means the consequence must consistently and reliably follow the behavior in order to be worthwhile: if the consequence is only rarely or unreliably applied, learning will be much slower. Finally, size refers to the degree to which the consequence will be perceived as significant by the target.

The NHL unarguably had issues with all three of these areas under Campbell. Contingency and size were especially problematic with punishments being poorly understood and inconsistently applied. Consequences were sometimes minimal or non-existant, making them seem both arbitrary and mostly inconsequential. It’s therefore no surprise the league struggled to meaningfully deter or extinguish dangerous behaviors with Campbell doling out inscrutable sentences apparently based on some subjective mix of old timey hockey intuition, his relationship with the player and a perception of  the guy’s villainy.

We are only a few, small steps into Brendan Shanahan’s time as the NHL’s discipline czar but the early signs are encouraging. Even though the season hasn’t even begun, Shanahan is already applying discipline in a far more meaningful manner. Take the recent James Wisniewski sentence, for instance:

Shanahan makes clear the Wisniewski behaviors that are in violation of the NHL rules as well as relevant supplementary issues that inform the ultimate punishment (after time expired, defenseless victim, repeat offender). Notably, the resulting suspension of the rest of the pre-season and eight regular season contests is significant (it will cost Wisniewski more than $550,000 in lost wages and the Blue Jackets lose their highest paid defender for 10% of the season) despite the absence of injury to Clutterbuck. Making the punishment contingent on the action and not the outcome is means more consistent application of discipline is possible.

Also impressive is the fact that Shanahan dismisses Wisniewski’s justification for the behavior. In my prior post, I discussed the implications of basing discipline on the perpetrators supposed or assumed motivations rather than his actions:

The league could potentially be aided in their formulations and considerations of this matter by focusing more on actus reus (the action or objective element of the deed) than mens rea (the mental – or motivational – aspect of the deed). If the goal is extinguish a given behavior (or set of behaviors), then the motivation behind the behavior is actually irrelevant – be it the heat of the moment, pre-mediated or a “hockey play”. Negotiating around intent…can overly complicate behavioral modification, especially in an area like hockey where a certain level of violence is not only expected but applauded. The league would likely be far more successful in their efforts if they chose to strictly define the behaviors they want to eliminate and then consistently applied suitably large consequences to those behaviors regardless of the actors perceived intent or motivation. Meaning no more debates about whether an action was a “hockey play” or not. No more considerations paid to whether “he really meant it”.

In the Wisniewski case, Shanahan makes it clear in the video above that “protecting yourself” is not a suitable excuse for elbowing another player in the head. He explicitly denies this form of rationalization and instead punishes the behavior itself. Previously, Campbell and the league seemed to be concerned with if a player “really meant it” or if he was “a bad guy”. In contrast, Shanahan’s only concern thus far seems to be: was the action illegal? That is the far more relevant inquiry.

As mentioned, Shanahan’s tenure is only beginning so we can’t be certain how this will shake out long-term. However, he seems to be proceeding in exactly the right direction -  in precisely the opposite direction of his predecessor.