Sometimes, the NHL feels like a mental institution.
The players are the patients. The calm ones are hardly noticed, but the crazy ones get all the attention. If these crazier patients are not punished for their misbehavior, they become bolder and more aggressive. Soon, the hospital staff is helpless to stop them, and the well-behaved patients are at risk.
Brendan Shanahan is the administrator of this mental institution, and because of his recent disciplinary decisions, the crazies are now in control.
But the NHL's Senior Vice President of Player Safety could have used punishment to suppress this aggression, as explained by Michener and DeLatamer in their book "Social Psychology:"
"Because punishment is widely used to control aggression, we might assume that punishment or the threat of punishment are effective deterrents. In fact, however, threats are effective in eliminating aggression only under certain narrowly defined conditions. For threats to inhibit aggression, the anticipated punishment must be great and the probability that it will occur very high. Even so, threatened punishment is largely ineffective when potential aggressors are extremely angry and when they believe they will gain by being aggressive."
This paragraph accurately describes the current situation in the NHL Playoffs. Several aggressive players have tested the resolve of Brendan Shanahan. When he failed to respond appropriately, they became more aggressive. Thus, the safety of the other players in the league was endangered.
On the very first night of the playoffs, Nashville's Shea Weber attacked Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg by slamming his head into the glass. Zetterberg was not injured, and Weber was not suspended. Shanahan's decision was his first message, and it was the loudest: If the victim is not injured, no matter how bad the act, then the consequences will be minimal.
This message remained consistent after an incident in Game 2 of the New York Rangers-Ottawa Senators series.
Enforcer Matt Carkner was inserted into Ottawa's lineup to retaliate against New York's Brian Boyle for bullying young defenseman Erik Karlsson during Game 1. On the first shift of the game, Carkner jumped Boyle, who knew retribution was coming but did not drop his gloves.
Carkner nailed Boyle with two punches, dropping him to the ice. He continued to pummel Boyle, landing five more punches before the other Rangers intervened. Shanahan suspended Carkner for only one game, because Boyle was not injured, and even finished the game.
But the next major incident sealed the fate of the mental institution that is the NHL, and the patients inside it.
In Game 3 of the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins series, Pittsburgh's James Neal became a head-seeking missile in one disturbing sequence of events.
The 24-year-old winger got a head start of a few strides and nailed Philadelphia's Sean Couturier with a hit to the head, leaving his skates to do so in clear violation of the rules. Before the dazed Couturier could get up from the ice or his teammates could retaliate, Neal sought out another victim, and found one in Claude Giroux.
Neal was not able to check the elusive Giroux, so instead he elbowed him in the head as he skated past him. Giroux was staggered by the blow, and stumbled for a few steps before falling to the ice and had to be helped to the bench.
There were several disciplinary hearings resulting from this one game, and Neal received two of them. He was not suspended at all for the hit to Couturier, who returned to the game, and was only suspended one game for elbowing Giroux, who did not return to the game but played in Game 4.
Both hits were illegal, and both were points of emphasis during the regular season. But in the more physical environment of the playoffs, Shanahan has altered his message, and the players have adapted quickly.
Brendan Shanahan's double hearing for James Neal was an opportunity to reset the message and reestablish his authority. But he failed, and it had disastrous results on the same night of the hearing.
Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres has established himself as one of the biggest lunatics in the asylum. In fact, he had just been suspended at the end of the regular season for a hit to the head. But he didn't listen to that message, because he noticed that the message had changed.
In the first period of Game 3 between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks, Torres targeted Chicago's Marian Hossa in a play eerily similar to Neal's hit on Couturier. Hossa had just finished playing the puck, but did not notice Torres, who hits like a freight train, coming towards him with a full head of steam before leaving his skates to crush Hossa with a vicious hit.
Hossa's jaw was hit squarely by Torres' right shoulder, and his head twisted from the impact before he fell hard to the ice. He was carted off the ice on a stretcher, left the arena in an ambulance, and spent the night in hospital. Because of these three factors, Shanahan suspended Torres indefinitely.
But it should never have gotten this far. Shanahan did not correctly use punishment to control aggression, and so the threat of punishment was no longer an effective deterrent.
Shanahan could have prevented this insanity.