(Frank Gunn / Associated…)
The NHL gave Brendan Shanahan a hammer. And though the new czar of discipline is swinging it more forcefully than anyone expected, the league insists the hammer won't be replaced with a feather.
Shanahan, head of the league's new player safety department, has aggressively carried out the NHL's overdue directive to punish players who hit opponents in the head. Predictably, he has faced a backlash, maybe because his decisiveness and clarity are startling after Colin Campbell's meek, muddled rulings.
Hardliners grumble the game is becoming soft. A report Saturday on "Hockey Night in Canada's" Hot Stove feature said a group of general managers went to Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly "and made it very clear that they are very unhappy" with Shanahan, though the report didn't identify them.
Daly on Monday backed Shanahan's performance and said he and Bettman had not heard from any disgruntled club executives.
"There is only one general manager that I am aware of that has expressed concern to either Gary or me about the standard that Brendan has been imposing and he did so only in response to me reaching out to him," Daly said via email. "I think any suggestion that there is widespread disagreement within the league and/or among the clubs with Brendan's standard and the discipline he has imposed to date is way off base and not factual.
"I will say unequivocally and for the record that no one at the league office has had any conversation with Brendan about changing the standard he is applying. Nor do we believe that he has or will 'back off,' as is being suggested in the media. One thing that both the clubs and players have asked for over time is consistency in decision-making. Brendan has applied a consistent standard to this point and I have no doubt that he will continue to apply a consistent standard going forward."
Shanahan and the league must stand tough for this initiative to have an impact. Players will learn where the line is. Some have already figured it out and have dished out hard, full-body hits that didn't inflict concussions.
"It's very similar to coming out of the lockout, with hooking and holding. Everybody said we were going to have penalties all year, but players adapt to it," said Rob Blake, a member of the player safety department. "Players are smart. They don't want to sit in the penalty box."
Blake said he has gotten more calls from general managers about plays that didn't draw suspensions than plays that did incur Shanahan's wrath. Blake is among Shanahan's advisors, along with Damian Echevarrieta of the player safety department and members of the hockey operations staff. The ultimate call is Shanahan's, and he alone appears in the explanatory videos posted on the league's website and sent to players.
"It's a learning curve for everyone, and I've been on that side as a player. But I do think the clarity on the suspensions and what has taken place has definitely helped," Blake said. "We've seen players make contact but maybe making it in a different way than they might have, and we've seen a progression."
To shackle Shanahan would halt that progress. This is too important to let self-interest win out.
Keep those passports current
Last week's Premiere Games in Berlin, Stockholm and Helsinki, Finland, left a lot of people with jet lag, but the NHL is intent on continuing the series and its globalization of the game.
The Kings, Ducks and Buffalo Sabres played on consecutive nights in different countries, but the New York Rangers had the advantage of staying in Stockholm for two games. The Kings were designated the home team in Stockholm and Berlin because their parent company, AEG, operates both arenas, but crowds favored the Rangers and native son Henrik Lundqvist in Stockholm and the Sabres with their many European-born players in Berlin.
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said Monday his players hadn't complained about the journey even though their sleep patterns were still off. "On the positive side, they're together a long time and I do like being on the road early in the year," he said from Maryland, where the team is practicing before facing the Devils on Thursday at New Jersey.
Daly said the league was pleased with the results and will continue to evaluate factors such as scheduling and travel for future Premiere matchups.