As the National Hockey League’s new disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan has his work cut out for him.
In hockey and other major sports, the issue of player safety has come to the forefront in recent years, and the onus is on leagues to structure rules in such a way that head injuries can be greatly reduced in number and severity. For the NHL, two specific kinds of hits are the most suspect.
Boarding hits can be the most dangerous in the game. When a players is a foot or more from the boards, facing the glass, he is vulnerable to a hit from behind that can send him face-first into the glass and cause serious damage to the head and neck.
In the offseason, Shanahan made it clear that intentional hits of this kind will be suspension-worthy, and he has not been hesitant to make examples of players who violate this rule. The Philadelphia Flyers alone saw two players tally 14 games in suspensions thanks to two violent, careless hits.
The other problem arises from open-ice hits that specifically target the head.
Until this offseason, hits to the head were allowed as long as the player did not leave his feet, lead with the elbow or hit from the blind side. Now the league does not allow hits where the head is the primary point of contact, or hits where the head is targeted.
Shanahan has been willing to suspend for violations of this type of hit as well, as shown in the fact that he banned Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski eight regular season games for a preseason hit on Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck. Wisniewski was also suspended for the rest of the preseason.
Anyone wondering what kind of disciplinarian Shanahan would be has had their question answered: he takes his role very seriously, and he is not afraid to dish out swift, harsh justice.
He also communicates his decisions and reasons through a series of videos in order to preemptively deter fans and media from offering their own explanations.
However, the question of whether or not the NHL is safer thanks to Shanahan’s current efforts is infinitely more complicated.
Hockey this year will certainly see more suspensions than most years, and the number of bone-rattling hits on YouTube will likely decline. Some fans will be unhappy about this, and understandably so. Hockey has prided itself on its toughness for years.
Thus, one must prepare for water-cooler debates and whining at the local pub anytime a player gets hit with another suspension. Speculation this year will range from questioning Shanahan’s motivation to monologues about the “wussification” of the sport.
Many hard-nosed fans will see this season as a pivotal year in the changing of the sport’s culture, and will swear that the sport isn’t as tough as it was 10 years ago.
Whether or not they are correct is irrelevant. Too many players, including a number of stars, have seen their careers cut short by the exact kinds of hits that Shanahan is looking to prevent.
For some, careers are the least of it. When the brain is involved, a hit like these can be life-altering. Research on chronic concussions is beginning to show links to dangerous disabilities and mental health issues.
Is Brendan Shanahan taking the NHL in the right direction?
For that reason alone, Shanahan’s stance is a step in the right direction.
Shanahan’s current system is an excellent system of punishment, and the assumed extension of punishment is deterrence. That is, if players know they will be hit with harsh suspensions for their infractions, they are much less likely to commit these infractions.
This process should be enough to greatly reduce hits that target the head, and while dirty players like Matt Cooke may take their time learning how to adjust their checking, the open ice will wind up being safer for players thanks to Shanahan’s no-nonsense attitude.
Play along the boards, however, requires additional adjustments or the game will suffer.
The reason that boarding penalties happen is because defensive players have little recourse in slowing down the opponent in an NHL that puts major restrictions on clutch-and-grab defense. Holding and hooking penalties are called with little acknowledgment for leeway, and as a result, a defender along the boards has two choices: take the body, or take a penalty.
In some cases, taking the body too forcefully results in boarding, but the defenseman cannot run the risk of not taking the body forcefully enough and allowing the offensive player to escape and generate a scoring chance.
Toronto general manager Brian Burke proposed a solution that was tested at the NHL’s Research and Development camp. The method, known as the “bear hug” rule, would essentially give a defender the right to brace an offensive player who was against the board with his back to the defender, protecting the puck.
By doing this, the defender avoids throwing his opponent headfirst into the boards and instead holds him up.
The specifics of the rule have not become clear, but the most logical circumstances for the rule would be to allow it only when it prevents a player from being hit dangerously, and would not extend to holding the player in place as he tries to escape the hold.
However, the NHL did not feel comfortable enough with Burke’s idea to put it on the books for 2011-12. As a result, player safety in boarding situations remains enforced only by punishment and deterrence.
Unfortunately, because forwards are exploiting the boarding rules by turning their backs to protect the puck, everyone loses. Those defenders who do what they’re supposed to sacrifice their ability to contain their man. Forwards that turn their backs, betting that the defender will choose to (and be able to) stop before hitting them, run the risk of losing that bet and suffering head and neck injuries.
Shanahan may be on track to be the right kind of disciplinarian: one that is taken very seriously. But until he learns that crime and punishment aren’t the only way to protect his players, the game will continue to suffer.
It is imperative for Shanahan to explore creative options to allow defenders to defend legally without running the risk of injuries, penalties and suspensions. The clutch-and-grab NHL may have been grittier and less exciting, but in some ways, it was safer, and the modern NHL can learn from the positives of older eras.
Fans that support player safety certainly support Shanahan’s hard-line stance on dangerous hits, and for that he should be commended. But his job is not simply to be a policeman, but a policy-maker, and he has an opportunity to change hockey for the better by pushing Burke’s rule (or something similar) through the right channels to change the way games are called.
Watch hockey this season, no matter where you fall in the suspension debate. The sport will still be fast. The sport will still be tough. The sport will still be unendingly entertaining.
But perhaps the days of seeing your team’s season change in a night because of a cheap hit on your superstar player are beginning to come to an end. Because, for as much as you love seeing a big hit, your stomach turns when the opponent doesn’t get back up after the hit.
Starting this season, Brendan Shanahan is taking steps toward changing that.