The NHL is and always will be an incredibly dangerous league for its participants. Hockey is not exactly a low-contact game to begin with and obviously these guys are flying around and getting better at everything with each passing year. The NHL of today resembles that of the 1980s and ’90s and even early 2000s, for example, in only the most cursory ways: There’s a stick and a puck and skates but the blue lines have moved, there’s a trapezoid behind the net, and the goalies’ pads are smaller and also guys are just about getting killed in every damn game you watch.
How many times in this postseason have we watched a game and said, “Oh, that’s something Brendan Shanahan is going to have to look at?” If it’s not literally every single game so far, it’s pretty damn close, because when the intensity gets ratcheted up to the levels typically observed this time of year, lots of elbows start flying around, lots of knees get taken out, and all that. It’s unavoidable. Or so we’d be led to believe.
The one man who can at least start cracking down on the types of injurious behavior that these illegal hits lead to is obviously the NHL’s discipline czar, Brendan Shanahan. A former player himself, with a history of both excellent production and borderline play, Shanahan was meant to lend credibility to the office of league disciplinarian after Colin Campbell was busted complaining about Marc Savard diving against his son’s team. And indeed, it’s a well-worn trope at this point that when Shanahan rode into town he did so with some big iron on his hip and did some serious business with it in the early days when he was trying to bring order to a largely lawless National Hockey League.
Look at this list of suspensions from his first season on the job: He was throwing out four- and five-gamers like they were nothing. By the time November started, he’d suspended 13 guys for a combined 42 regular-season games and a whole boatload in the preseason as well. Two more guys got max fines. He used to walk around with that gun loaded and guys dialed it back to some extent because, like any fearsome gunslinger, even the slightest provocation caused him to react with force that was perhaps undue given the circumstance. But if you want order, that’s the price bad guys have to pay sometimes. Can’t go around crying for ‘em.
I’ve said it before, but Shanahan was effectively no longer a person who could be trusted to do his job the day Gary Bettman swooped in and dialed back the big-time 25-gamer he threw at Raffi Torres when the then-Coyote almost ended Marian Hossa’s career. It became like that issue of creating a monster to defeat a monster, but then not knowing what to do with him once he’s done so. They let him run without any oversight too long, and his penchant for coming down hard on guys was no longer seen as tenable. The NHL, and probably the PA as well, put a stop to that. Now, in the 2013 regular season, he only handed out 15 suspensions from mid-January to the end of April, and it sure isn’t because guys are skating around respecting each other more than they did at the same time last year.
Of those 15 suspensions, just two were for five games. None were for more than that. One of the big ones was given to Patrick Kaleta who is a repeat offender, which, when compared with the 12 games dropped on James Wisniewski a year and a half prior, seems like chump change. This is especially true because Shanahan has said he was not pro-rating suspensions given the abbreviated season.
So yes, we know Shanahan has been neutered by powers greater than his own, but look what it gets us. Attempts to injure from Dustin Brown, Henrik Sedin throwing a butt-end to Logan Couture’s head, an errant elbow from Dion Phaneuf, Marty Reasoner going knee-to-knee on Jussi Jokinen. All elicited no response at all from Shanahan, which seems at least somewhat inspired by the fact that these are the playoffs, and they’re too important for borderline infractions to lead even to fines. The same is true of Andrew Ference, a repeat offender himself, only getting a game for the elbow on Mikhail Grabovski; he probably should have gotten more given his status, but he didn’t because these games matter too much. The Abdelkader call was pretty much by-the-books no matter what some dumbass radio host in Michigan thinks, and the Gryba two-gamer entirely the result of optics rather than reason. Again, hockey is dangerous, but all it takes for quick and decisive suspensions is for blood to pool scarily in the middle of the ice.
But then again, he presumably sat there and watched the entire third period of the Ottawa/Montreal game over the weekend, in which a few hundred penalty minutes were handed out thanks to brawls, flying elbows, slashes, crosschecks and other potentially injurious plays and decided no one gets anything. Rene Bourque, a repeat offender, blatantly elbowed someone in the head. Shanahan didn’t bat an eye. Why not? Who knows? The NHL Department of Player Discipline has been quiet as Phil Kessel with Zdeno Chara on the ice on the matter, despite its stated plans to occasionally reveal the reasoning behind not levying such discipline in some cases. This is one instance that cried out for it, and that there was no such explanation is pathetic.
We were all so excited for the new era of entirely transparent supplementary discipline decisions that would ostensibly replace the Wheel of Justice travesties to which we’d become so accustomed, but for someone whose job title has “player safety” right in it, we’ve seen some genuinely scary things happen on the ice and Shanahan sit there dumbly, as if waiting for someone else to straighten it out. Frontier justice is one thing, and in cases like when Matt Cooke fought Shawn Thornton after ending Marc Savard’s career, it’s warranted. But the things he’s letting go in these playoffs, which would have prompted him to shoot first and ask questions later just 18 months ago, is sad if perhaps inevitable. He’s said that he suspends to the injury and I think he should, insofar as plays that are more injurious should necessarily come with larger penalties. But that Cory Conacher would have to have gotten a concussion from Bourque, for example, for that elbow the other night to have resulted in anything is obviously silly. Just because it didn’t leave Conacher lying in a dark room for hours at a time waiting for his headaches to go away doesn’t mean that an elbow wasn’t an elbow. The same is true of Reasoner almost blowing out Jokinen’s knee. His ACL and MCL were fine, but the hit wasn’t.
As with Campbell’s ridiculous regime, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what it is that will and will not garner a suspension any more. The next guy who loses a season or maybe even a career to a concussion on a play like the ones the league isn’t suspending guys for now is on Shanahan. He had the power to change the way the league approaches these things, and he got stomped down by the system. Now he’s just another ineffectual flunky, blandly reading off contrived reasons why Gryba should have had to serve two games because they needed to squeegee the ice after his hit, and doing all in his power to avoid one of his decisions actually impacting a playoff round. That’s not his job; his job is to protect the players. And he’s shown he has very little interest in doing that.