Is the National Hockey League less safe under Brendan Shanahan's watch?
Brendan Shanahan’s official title is National Hockey League senior vice president of player safety. And yet, under his watch and because of his inaction and indecision, at no time in league history have NHL players been less safe in their working environment.
The opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is widely regarded as the best two weeks of the hockey season, with the 16 qualifying teams revving their engines and flexing their muscles as they start out on the lengthy journey to be the last team standing. With multiple games every night, it’s sensory overload for hockey fans, often without enough time between games to process all that has been seen and to get a full grasp of all that has occurred in each of the first eight series.
But this year’s playoffs started with a different feel. Sure, the usual passion and emotion were present, but the first weekend of the postseason also brought with it an unrecognizable lawlessness that isn’t necessarily good for the game—and it certainly doesn’t represent a safe working environment for the players involved.
The players are the stars of the show, and without them the league doesn’t have much of a product to put on display. So it’s Shanahan’s job, and it is in the league’s best interest, to make sure that as many healthy players as possible are available to their teams. Injuries in the course of play are going to happen, but they are a part of hockey, and there’s no question the two-month-long quest for the cup is a war of attrition.
However, the league can’t declare open season on players the way it has this year. And that’s exactly what Shanahan did when he decided that Chicago Blackhawk Duncan Keith’s elbow to the face of Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin in the final two weeks of the season warranted a mere five-game suspension.
By basically setting the price so low for a devastating shot to the head of one of the league’s best players so close to the playoffs, Shanahan delivered the message that he was going to let the laws of the jungle apply and that teams and players were on their own to police things the way they saw fit.
That point was driven home on the playoffs’ opening night, when the Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber used Henrik Zetterberg’s head as a battering ram and blasted the Detroit forward not once but twice into the end glass. That earned Weber a $2,500 fine—lunch money to a guy making $7.5 million this season. Why wouldn’t Weber and every defenceman in the league abuse opposing forwards that way if they knew it was only going to cost them pocket change?
Tough, physical play is one thing, and it will always have a place in the game, especially at playoff time. Stupidity, however, is another. And it’s hard to take seriously a league that talks about cracking down on head shots when the guy in charge of player safety does next to nothing to ensure the safety of the players he’s supposed to be protecting.
Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers could hardly have felt safe when attacked by Ottawa’s Matt Carkner, who got just a single-game suspension for jumping the Ranger forward and filling his face full of heavy right hands.
A few periods later in the same game, Ranger forward Carl Hagelin put a bull’s-eye on Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson’s head and corked him with an elbow. It was blatant, it was needless, and it was the kind of play the league says it wants to get rid of, but the three-game suspension handed down in no way supports that claim.
Mike Smith, the Phoenix Coyotes goalie and the key to any Coyote playoff success, shouldn’t have to worry about a rookie trying to run him out of the postseason the way Chicago’s Andrew Shaw did when he went out of his way to put his shoulder into the netminder’s chin behind the net. But the league has basically given guys like Shaw a permission slip to take such action. Who is more important to his team? It certainly isn’t Shaw, who knows he’ll pay a small price. But had he knocked Smith out of the series, the Coyotes would have paid a much stiffer one.
All of the above incidents pale in comparison to the mayhem that marked the Pittsburgh Penguins–Philadelphia Flyers series, where the puck so often seemed secondary to hell-raising and message-sending. Rivalries—especially a traditional and geographic turf war like the Battle of Pennsylvania—can, and usually do, provide some terrific theatre. But the first few games of the Penguins-Flyers series crossed the line too many times, with Arron Asham’s stick assault to the face of Brayden Schenn and James Neal looking for blood with unnecessary high hits to both Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.
Emotions boiled over to the point where both Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang—two of the highest-profile concussion sufferers in the league this season—dropped the gloves and tried to settle scores with their fists. Both were willing combatants and have to accept some of the responsibility, but the league is culpable too for allowing the temperature of these series to rise so high and not establishing boundaries.
The league has a responsibility to look out for its players, and by not taking action when he had the chance, Shanahan has come up short in his role in charge of player safety. Laughable fines and minimal suspensions certainly aren’t working to rid the game of head shots or make the sport any safer. Just ask the players who have been hurt in these playoffs. Or, better yet, ask Daniel Sedin, who never really had the chance to compete.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.