Different, But Not Necessarily Tougher
Fancier and more sophisticated, sure.
But the beginning of a tough new era in NHL justice? Not so fast.
For starters, let's be clear; Brendan Shanahan did not hand out five- and 10-game suspensions on Wednesday to Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Jody Shelley, respectively, for their blatant and dangerous hitting-from-behind infractions.
Letourneau-Leblond's was for one plus a few exhibition games in which he doesn't get paid and may not have played. Shelley's was for five plus the exhibitions, and he won't lose a minute's sleep for missing those.
Now you tell me; given that Shelley was twice suspended last year, both for two games, and has been a multiple offender over the course of his 18-goal NHL career, one which has shown him to be the absolute definition of a hockey goon, will missing the first five games of the season really change his behaviour?
Not a chance.
Will it make a single other player in the league take notice? Not a chance. Ditto for Letourneau-Leblond's one-gamer plus the games that don't matter, another slap on the wrist for another player whose only role in the sport is to accumulate fighting majors and penalty minutes.
What was new and different was the manner in which Shanahan, the NHL's new minister of justice, delivered his verdicts on the two enforcers. Instead of a conference call or individual chats with reporters, he posted his decisions and the reasoning for them on NHL.com, a good way to drive traffic to the NHL's web site and a novel way to articulate his decisions.
In both cases, the fouls were obvious and barely debatable, even by the most ardent Calgary or Philadelphia fans, and even by critics concerned about the "pansification" of the sport or worried about taking hitting out of the game. This was low hanging fruit, and if Shanahan's predecessor, Colin Campbell, wouldn't have given suspensions quite as severe, it wouldn't have been much less.
Folks, if this was a league that was really worried about brain injuries and really wanted to take hitting from behind out of the sport, the suspensions would have been much longer. Morever, at a time when the role of fighting and of enforcers is under more scrutiny than ever after a terrible summer, it does make you shake your head that once more, it's the "policemen" committing the crimes.
These bans look tough on the surface. But in his rulings, Shanahan didn't come anywhere close to the standard set by Mike Murphy, standing in for Campbell during the Stanley Cup final, when he suspended Vancouver's Aaron Rome for the reminder of the series after his vicious head shot on Nathan Horton of the Bruins in Game 3.
So maybe tougher than Campbell, but not as tough as Murphy. Really, what Shanahan's first suspensions suggest is that it's going to be another season of one suspension after another because there is no real resolve within the Bettman adminstration to commit to a disciplinary system that has deterrence as the central principle.
Give Shelley 20 games and Letourneau-Leblond 10 games, and those bans would resonate across the league in such a way as to essentially take hitting from behind out of the game.
These suspensions? Meh. Nothing we haven't seen before, nothing out of the ordinary. We won't even notice that either player is missing.
Shanahan is, however, to be commended for the way in which he communicated the decisions. Campbell did a terrific job given the parameters under which he worked. People kept wanting him to make decisions he wasn't authorized to make by the league's board of governors. He was so often criticized as though he acted alone when every decision he made included at the very least the league's hockey operations staff and often members of the NHL executive, including Gary Bettman himself. His failing was often an inability to communicate his most controversial decisions to the public. Probably the greatest example was the dirty Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard. Campbell stuck to his guns, saying that since there was nothing in the rule book that covered the hit he couldn't very well make one up, but he was unable to deliver that message in a way that cooled the controversy.
By comparison, Wednesday's NHL.com video explanations seemed methodical and detailed. That approach is useful, but it won't make a great deal of difference when higher profile players are involved or when the fouls committed aren't quite so obvious as these. You think a video chat would have cooled the over-the-top reaction to the decision not to suspend Zdeno Chara for riding Max Pacioretty into the ill-positioned stanchion in Montreal?
There's also the question raised on my Twitter account today as to whether video explanations will be forthcoming when no suspension is handed out, as in the Chara-Pacioretty incident. In rhw past, general practice has been that the league essentially says nothing when the player is not forced to sit out games.
So give Shanahan "A" for style, "C" for substance. Tougher decisions lie ahead, and unless he's prepared to ramp up the length of future bans, he'd better be prepared to spend a lot of time in front of the video camera this season.