By Stu Hackel
The single most-talked about play in Wednesday night’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was not the great winning goal by Raffi Torres, nor any of the tremendous saves by Tim Thomas or Roberto Luongo, nor some of the big bodychecks thrown in the hotly contested game. No, it was the alleged chomp by Alex Burrows on Patrice Bergeron, which still has Burrows trending on Twitter throughout Canada, in Boston and some other hockey towns in the U.S. the following afternoon.
It is a biting commentary (sorry) on what the public considers most significant about the game. And that includes hockey fans and observers in the media, because when it comes to player conduct, penalties, suspensions, fines and all manner of supplemental discipline in the NHL, we’ve all become pretty obsessed with whether a particular act deserves a particular response and how strong that response should be.
The way discipline has gone in the postseason, it was not expected that Burrows would be suspended, and he wasn’t, even though that sort of nonsense often earns a player few games off during the regular season.
And that brings us to yesterday’s surprise news that Colin Campbell, who had a pretty rough year (see SI.com’s gallery), was stepping away from his task as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian and handing his wristslapper over to Brendan Shanahan beginning next season. The announcement was a surprise even to the league’s executives, who had decided on the change in March but had not planned to make it known until the Board of Governors’ meetings later this month. The NHL went public after Shanahan’s appointment had been leaked to TSN’s Darren Dreger earlier yesterday.
Handing out (or failing to hand out) fines and suspensions is not the only part of Campbell’s job, but it is the most visible and most contentious part. No one in hockey, with the possible exception of Commissioner Gary Bettman, has taken more criticism than Campbell, and a good chunk of it has been undeserved. The frequent screeds directed at him often overlook the fact that the league’s owners and general managers, not Campbell, largely define the parameters on what should be punished and they, along with the NHLPA, set the broad limits on the severity of supplemental discipline. Campbell fills in the details and is the public face of the process. He’s been paid to be the public whipping boy and after 13 increasingly difficult years, he has been whipped into submission.
It’s a job that not too many people really want, and in 1998, when Brian Burke left it to become the Canucks’ GM, Bettman asked a number of prominent hockey executives to accept the position. They all declined and then he turned to Campbell, who had recently been fired as coach of the Rangers. Campbell had no other job offers and no previous experience in hockey management with a team or league. If Colie’s availability, love of the game and good-guy image were not the main reasons he got the job, they didn’t hurt.
But good feelings don’t last long in this job, and as Campbell said in Vancouver during his Wednesday press conference with Shanahan, who had thanked him for helping to land Shanny’s new gig, “You won’t be thanking me next year at this time.”
Shanahan hadn’t even begun the job, but he was questioned by a reporter who wanted to know how he could be fair when making rulings that involved the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are managed by his good friend Steve Yzerman. Shanny dodged a clear response, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable question and, in an NHL culture where ulterior motives are always suspected, it shows just how tough this job can be.
Not only did Campbell hear it from the fans and media, he also got severe pressure from the GMs and owners to either strongly punish or absolve a player for a particular incident. Nearly 50 players were suspended this season, and there may have as many or more who were fined. Every night it was possible that someone would cross the line or at least be perceived to have violated the standard of acceptable behavior during an NHL game, and it most often fell to Campbell to decide what to do about it. You can bet that in each case, his phone rang with a call from the victim’s team and the accused’s, and afterward from the one that felt the decision didn’t go its way. None of them were pleasant conversations.
Campbell was not blameless in making his rulings. There was little clear consistency apart from their general leniency, although that is somewhat by design. He (or his designee Mike Murphy, who also got his share of grief) had to make calls on any number of incidents and judge whether or not they were good “hockey plays.” Because of what was seen as a mission to preserve the physical side of the game, Campbell erred at times by being too soft when stern action would have served the game’s interests better.
Colie’s lack of polish and articulation also got him into trouble, as did his occasional candor. He and Shanahan appeared on the NHL Network on Wednesday, and they told the story of how Campbell forced Shanahan during his playing days to drive eight hours in awful weather for a 30-second meeting just to tell him he was being fined. Here’s the video on that…
…and while it’s a very endearing, homespun sort of fatherly tale, it’s not necessarily the most professional way of handling supplemental discipline. In that sense, Shanahan is Campbell’s opposite. He is smoother, more calculating and, as many pointed out yesterday, a very political animal. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to have an easier time of it than Campbell did, especially if he doesn’t have more concrete guidelines for the length of suspensions, which some call for and he doesn’t seem inclined to embrace.
What may change is that Shanahan could be the beneficiary of a new day in NHL thinking on making suspensions harsher and more of a deterrent. “Both Colin and I believe that it is time to take a fresh look at the standards that we use, and if we’re going to move to harsher discipline, that change needs to send a clear message, and we think it would probably be best to do it on a clean slate,” Bettman said yesterday. “Having Brendan, who only recently came off the ice after a wonderful career, will give us the adjustment and the focus and the credibility that this change will bring about.”
There’s also the newly created Department of Safety, of which Shanahan in now the titular head. Some may wince at that name, thinking it sounds like a bureau overseeing highway construction or traffic enforcement — if not the French Revolution’s Committee on Public Safety, which protected the new republic from internal and external enemies by using the guillotine as its preferred instrument of deterrence. Folding discipline into the whole issue of player safety is in interesting move and if there’s a sincere effort to make the game safer through changes in player behavior, this could be something of a revolution, too.