Shanahan gets it right in NHL’s first bans of ’11-12
Now that’s how you do it.
Brendan Shanahan(notes) didn’t just assess two stiff suspensions Thursday in his first acts as the NHL’s disciplinarian, nailing the Calgary Flames’ Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond(notes) for four preseason games and one regular-season game, then the Philadelphia Flyers’ Jody Shelley(notes) for five preseason games and five regular-season games, both for hits from behind along the boards.
The NHL didn’t just issue press releases, either. Shanahan also tweeted links to NHL.com. He invited everyone – fans, media, players, coaches, executives – to watch video explanations.
Shanahan stood in a studio wearing a dark suit with a white shirt, open collar, no tie. He was professional, natural and to the point. As he went through each incident in detail, using language directly from the rule book, the NHL’s in-house video production team ran the replays with slow motion, freeze frames, spotlights and quotations from the new boarding rule. Not only could everyone hear why Shanahan had made his decisions, everyone could see exactly what he was talking about.
Much will be made of Shanahan setting a tone, but he didn’t necessarily set out to be harsh. While outlining his approach in August, he said he believed short suspensions to certain players for certain infractions could be effective teaching tools, but longer suspensions would go to repeat offenders. As he explained on video, he considered that Letourneau-Leblond was suspended once last season, Shelley twice.
“If I want to establish any tone early,” Shanahan told me in August, “I hope to establish fairness, transparency and a feeling that people in hockey know that I’m really dedicated to player safety.”
Done, done and done. With a pair of brief videos, supplemental discipline was revolutionized.
This is the modern world, the digital age of Twitter and YouTube and HDTV. This is the modern NHL of bigger, faster players hitting more often and more violently, of new rules and gray areas and a concussion crisis.
The rules are only as good as their enforcement, and their enforcement is only as good as how it changes the culture. By taking advantage of these tools, by being transparent, the NHL hasn’t just gotten with the times. It has gotten ahead of the curve in comparison to the other professional sports leagues, and ultimately, it should give everyone more confidence in the integrity of the process and a clearer idea of where the lines are drawn.
This plan began last season, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman approached Shanahan about taking over supplemental discipline from Colin Campbell, the league’s senior executive vice-president of hockey operations.
Campbell is a man of integrity. He really is. He tried to do what was right. But he had a son playing in the NHL, and even though he didn’t handle incidents involving his son’s team, it caused problems and looked like a conflict of interest. His rulings seemed inconsistent, and his old-school style and lack of communication skills fed that perception.
In short, he didn’t explain anything, and when he did, he got himself into trouble. It was as if he didn’t have to explain anything, because if you knew hockey, if you really watched the game, you would understand and everything would make perfect sense – even though people from all corners of the hockey world sometimes scratched their heads.
Shanahan isn’t that different from Campbell. He really isn’t. He was disciplined by Campbell as a player, learned from him in the league office and still consults him today. He knows old-school hockey and values physical play. He has some of the same support structure.
The difference is that Shanahan is younger. He played the game more recently than Campbell did, and he played a leading role in the rule changes after the 2004-05 lockout that opened up the game and the rule changes introduced this off-season. Most important, Shanahan speaks well. He has a politician’s polish. He can connect to all kinds of hockey people.
Shanahan, whose official title is vice-president of player safety and hockey operations, is an educator as well as a disciplinarian. His mission is to make it as clear as possible what the players can and cannot do, both in his discipline and in how he administers it. He plans to release a video explanation every time he issues a suspension – and might even release a video explanation at times when he doesn’t issue a suspension.
Earlier this week, the NHL released a video in which Shanahan explained his job and the new rules governing boarding and illegal checks to the head. He did it together with Mathieu Schneider(notes), the special assistant to NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr. He is working together with Schneider, and this showed the players that they were involved.
“This is our job, so we live it every day,” Shanahan told me in August. “But their job is to play hockey and win games, so they don’t have the time to put in the detailed studying that we do of it. But I do think that if you produce a video, they do want to see that. I think that is a useful teaching tool.”
Frankly, the Letourneau-Leblond and Shelley cases were easy ones, clear-cut violations of the new boarding rule. The rulings will become more challenging – and the videos more important – as the season progresses and Shanahan sorts out of the shades of gray, hit by hit, bit by bit.
This takes guts. Shanahan is putting himself out there. He is opening himself up to criticism, knowing full well that his words could come back to haunt him as people compare incidents and look for inconsistencies. He knows not everyone will agree with him on each incident.
But it’s worth it. Instead of a vacuum filled by speculation, we will have actual information. He hopes everyone will understand how he made each decision, and that over time, everyone will see, as he said, “where the strike zone is.” Everyone should realize he doesn’t hit that zone by closing his eyes and throwing a dart.
Shanahan knows executives, coaches and players want the straight scoop. He trusts media professionals want to get the story right. He believes fans should receive respect, too.
“We feel like our hockey fans are really knowledgeable, and they want to know what the players know,” Shanahan told me in August. “When we make these changes, they deserve to know what changes we’re making and the message we’re giving to the teams and the players.”
Right now, the videos are revolutionary. If this works, one day they will be routine, and maybe someday the NHL won’t need as many.
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