Ray Shero and Mike Gillis have plenty in common.
The General Managers of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, their teams are among the best in the game. Each commands a front office which performs some of the most masterful managerial work in the NHL salary cap era, and their clubs are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
They've also endured this season's most severe penalties handed down by the NHL's directionless disciplinary system.
Should they share a beer at next season's GM meetings, Shero might have some advice for Gillis.
"Just let it go."
Raffi Torres was recently suspended four games—two in the postseason—for his hit to the head of Edmonton's Jordan Eberle. Torres was issued a major penalty and game misconduct following the hit, and Eberle returned to the game.
The league's decision came down several days later.
As inconsistent as the ruling was in light of similar incidents—and there has been nothing but inconsistency from the league on the issue—Mike Gillis would have been right to publicly agree with the ruling.
At the very least, Gillis should have stayed silent on the issue, instructing his team to do the same.
“It was a fine hit,” Torres told the Vancouver Province. “I was finishing my hit and he had his head down. We were both going for the puck. I’ve got to finish my hits.”
In defense of his player, Gillis also questioned the ruling.
“I strongly disagree with it, we’re going to move on here and get ready for the playoffs,” Gillis told reporters.
“I thought it was a hockey play.”
It has been the standard for executives to defend their players in spite of evidence pointing to their guilt. Whether or not Gillis thought the hit was clean, he defended his player's innocence, as has been the accepted standard.
At the GM meetings in March, head shots were the topic du jour, and Shero was at the front of a small group of general managers demanding immediate and harsh responses to hits that had shelved star players like Crosby, Marc Savard and David Perron.
A few weeks later, Cooke incurred the longest such ruling since Todd Betuzzi's assault on Steve Moore, putting his organization in the spotlight again.
Shero could have cited the fluffy suspensions to Dany Heatley and Brad Marchand. He could have publicly defended Matt Cooke, calling him a good family man. He could have assured the public that Cooke had no ill intents, and that the league was out of line and on and on forever.
Shero took a path less traveled by other executives.
“The suspension is warranted because that’s exactly the kind of hit we’re trying to get out of the game," Shero said in a press conference following the ruling. "Head shots have no place in hockey. We’ve told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen."
"Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message.”
While the NHL continues to iron out the (giant) wrinkles in its disciplinary standards, teams will have to adjust—that is, ignore blatant injustices until anything resembling a standard has been set and upheld.
Mike Gillis had every right to defend his player. Torres had every right to defend his actions. In the end, Gillis, Torres and anyone else searching for justice in the matter is going to continue to argue with the wind.
Arguing the hit misses the heart of the matter, something Gillis and the Canucks have let go of.
Perhaps Gillis felt safe in arguing the decision because Eberle returned to the game. However, as long as teams and league officials continue to dissect the acts that leave players crumpled on the ice, they won't be able to focus on the bigger issue: the players left crumpled on the ice.
In spite of Shero's lead, it is still taboo for team officials to question their players. Whether or not Gillis believed Torres' hit was truly innocent, he still defended his player.
He should have just let it go.
Rather than engage in a protracted battle of press releases with the league concerning the Cooke hit, Shero and the Penguins put the matter to bed with their statements.
One can argue the Penguins had no choice but to agree. Cooke is a serial offender, and Lemieux and Shero had made themselves magnets for criticism with their comments following the Islanders game and at the GM meetings.
Rather than follow the old standard of siding with the player no matter what, the Penguins legitimized their concern with the press release, and have continued doing so with the introduction of programs like Heads Up Pittsburgh, where the Penguins and local hospitals sponsor free baseline concussion testing for youth athletes in the Pittsburgh area.
If the goal at large is to create a culture where these hits are completely intolerable, Gillis could have advanced the cause by agreeing with the ruling or keeping silent on it, and putting the matter to rest.
Instead, the Canucks are now guilty of arguing the minutiae of these violent collisions. The continued focus on things like implied intent, player reputation and resultant injuries will cloud the issue indefinitely, and do nothing to prevent the next crushing head injury.
By taking the hard stance on Cooke, the Penguins appear to be seeking an end to debilitating head injuries, where others are still stuck on defending the suspended acts.
Whether or not Torres' hit was truly worthy of the punishment it received in inconsequential. That the Canucks chose to argue the play-by-play of the hit shows they are still off the mark.
If all clubs can ignore the incompetence of systems of punishment and put their focus of the well-being of their players, they will have solved the issue, and they won't have to wait for the league to catch up to them to do it.
Gillis can make himself blue in the face arguing the legitimacy of the ruling, and he may be absolutely correct in doing so. But until the league does an about face and establishes a real set of standards on the issue, players, coaches and team executives are going to be on their own in creating an environment that is genuinely focused on player safety—even if it means a grin-and-bear-it approach to the NHL's continued missteps.