NHL Crime and Punishment: How Sheriff Shanahan & Co. are Failing with NHL Discipline
With the first round of the NHL play-offs safely behind us and a roaring start to the second round under way, we’ve had enough time pass to really examine the NHL safety issues that emerged from the first round. Does the NHL need a new strategy if it wants to clean up the game, or does it have an effective vehicle in the form of an internal “Department of Player Safety” headed by a former player? Let’s examine that question a little closer, shall we?
Brendan Shanahan, VP of the Player Safety Department, definitely does have a checkered past. Over his 20-year NHL career, he accumulated just under 2,500 penalty minutes and on 17 separate occasions, scored the notorious “Gordie Howe hat trick” — a goal, an assist and a fight, all in the same game. That’s actually considerably more (15 more to be precise) than Howe, himself, produced of his eponymous hat trick! Given the record, one could argue that the NHL’s never going to have a clean league if they hire guys like Shanahan. You could argue that such a violent man is the wrong man to head up the NHL’s “Department of Player Safety.”
Alternatively, one could argue he’s the perfect man for the job because he knows from experience, what a foul play looks like. He can separate the wheat from the chaff to really punish those who showed malice and deserve it, while dealing a lighter sentence to random, ‘heat-of-the-moment’ behaviour. Only he could have that discretion because only he has walked the line. Well, not only he, but you get the idea.
I would argue that we should avoid scrutinizing Shanahan’s record either way. To judge his decisions as VP based on his “colourful” hockey career would mean succumbing to the Ad Hominem Fallacy. That is, we shouldn’t attack a man’s judgements based on our opinions of the man himself. We should listen to his arguments and see if they carry merit regardless of his character or past. Just because someone has beaten someone senseless doesn’t mean he’s wrong when he says another player deserves a 25 game suspension for leaving his feet during a devestating hit. No. What truly matters is the logic behind his decisions and sentences. So let’s dig in and examine that logic!
Shanahan’s sanctions from the first round have come under considerable analysis. He has responded with a series of defences for his decisions. Let’s explore one particular incident in which Shanahan passed a controversial judgement; the Weber/Zetterberg incident. This incident, I think, really shines a light on the challenges of cleaning up hockey.
In Game 1 between Detroit and Nashville, Shea Weber grabbed Henrik Zetterberg’s head from behind and, in a wrestling style move, smashed it against the boards (see photo and video at http://youtu.be/XiMgjO0EgtE ). Zetterberg avoided serious injury thanks to a helmet and a lucky bounce on the glass. The resulting punishment issued from Shanahan? A $2,500 fine for Shea Weber and no suspension.
Shea Weber is a marquee player for Nashville and people criticised Shanahan by saying that Weber was getting “star treatment” and that he got off easy. Here is Shanahan’s response to the “star treatment” accusation:
“We look as deep as we can into each situation. There are some stars and superstars in all sports that have an ugly history of offenses. But there are fewer of them. I would say as a whole, they don’t have a historical record of repeat offenses that other players might have. It always comes to the specific case and what happened. (Alex) Ovechkin got three games, and he’s a superstar. Duncan Keith got five games, and he’s a superstar… We just look at their history. Then we have non-superstars who get one or two games because they don’t have the history, either. We try to go past reputation and look directly at a guy’s history. If you played a long time and you have a clean record, you will receive a shorter suspension, whether you are on the first line or fourth line.”
Okay. That sounds like a reasonable argument, but here’s the rub – Weber didn’t receive any suspension. Nothing. Just a small fine for what seemed like a rather egregious hit with intent to harm. So when pressed on his particular decision in this case, here is what Shanahan had to say:
“I investigated that hit. I called Detroit that night. I think that he pushed his face in the glass. I was very close to a 1-game suspension on that. When I talked to Detroit [GM Ken Holland], he basically said that the player was fine. I think it’s a fair argument. A $2,500 fine is as high as we can fine a player.”
Well, there may be some sense to that claim because Shanahan has also argued that cases where victims don’t get injured are analogous to attempted murder convictions. Those who get convicted of attempted murder get smaller sentences than people who actually commit murder because no harm was done. Alright. Shanahan says something else about this case, though, that really shows the cracks in the logic and the ultimate flaw in the NHL system. Shanahan says:
“The playoffs evolve. The game evolves. I have to try and keep evolving with them. It’s not like the regular season where every team has 82 games to play, and there’s equal footing. They change depending on the score of the series or how many games are left in the series.”
Ah ha. Well, see, this is where it all falls apart. This is the “Not Withstanding Clause” of the NHL Department of Safety. In truth, Mr. Shanahan, the crime doesn’t change depending on the score of the series or how many games are left in the series. This statement shows the flaw in the NHL system. It shows that despite all the careful reasoning for the decisions, all the time spent looking past the player’s “star status” to examine his historical record and looking into severity of the injury, none of that really matters to Shanahan. What ultimately matters to him and to the NHL is “the score of the series or how many games are left in the series”. What it truly boils down to is what will happen to the series if you punish this player. If you take him out of the series with a big suspension, you might hurt the chances of the team to win the series and for the game to be an exciting match. This statement from Shanahan demonstrates that the NHL is not serious about eliminating egregious hits from hockey. Shea Weber didn’t get a slap on the wrist with a $2,500 fine for any other reason than the fact that it happened in game 1 of the series and that Weber is a critical player who could tip the balance of the series.
If Shea Weber had a long tarnished history, and had actually drawn blood or broken Zetterberg’s nose, they STILL would not have taken him out with a big suspension because it happened in game one of the series. If they really cared about eliminating “goonery”, they’d have thrown the book at Shea Weber and said “tough nuts” to the fans and owners of the Preds. If they really wanted to clean up the NHL, score in game and series would be immaterial. If a player like Weber got thrown out for that type of hit and then the Preds lost the series, other players would drop the wrestling motif and focus on the puck because they wouldn’t want to relive the Weber incident.
…and that is the last word.