In conversation: Brendan Shanahan

On the future of fighting, making disciplinary videos and getting dissed by Don Cherry

On the future of fighting, making disciplinary videos and getting dissed by Don Cherry

Steve Simon/Maclean's

In 21 NHL seasons as a player, winning three Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold, he always made things happen on the ice. But now Brendan Shanahan is out to change the game itself. As the league’s new senior vice-president of player safety and hockey operations, the 42-year-old is charged with both enforcing and rethinking the rule book. And he’s drawing a lot of heat from the game’s “purists.”

Q: The NHL season has just started and already you’re under fire. Were you surprised that the honeymoon was so short?

A: I knew that it was a controversial position, but it’s an endeavour I believe in. There’ll always be those who think every decision is too much, and there will be those who think every decision is too little. I try to keep my focus on the goal: keeping hockey physical and entertaining and passionate. But I think it can also be safer. And I think the players are already showing their ability to adapt.

Q: You really did start out with a bang—suspending nine players for a total of 31 games in the pre-season. Were you trying to set a tone and send a message?

A: I don’t think so. I view the games the same way every night. I still have the same eye and the same opinion on what is illegal. But illegal can sometimes just mean a penalty, or maybe a phone call from me. Not every infraction in the rule book requires supplemental discipline. Pre-season is a challenge, there’s a lot of players who aren’t regular NHLers trying to get noticed.

Q: So you’re saying the slowdown in suspensions is due to players adapting rather than you backing off a bit?

A: I haven’t backed off a bit. And I haven’t been asked to, or instructed to. I am thrilled to not be making [discipline] videos. The credit goes to the players. But they, and everyone else, should know that we’re watching every night. I think the strong majority of players want that accountability. It’s never a pleasant experience when it’s you or a teammate going through it, but this is something the managers and players asked me to do. And I’m holding them to it and not changing my standard.

Q: You got called onto the carpet a few times during your career. What did you learn from those experiences that’s helping you in this job?

A: Perspective. I never woke up when I was a player and said, “Tonight I’m going to hurt somebody.” The game is fast, the game is passionate. And some players have a certain style that will occasionally take them over the line. These are not bad people, or bad guys. They play a passionate sport, and they are sometimes asked to walk a very fine line.

Q: There are reports that some general managers feel the suspensions are too much, too fast. Have they been calling you directly?

A: [NHL deputy commissioner] Bill Daly has refuted that. They haven’t received a single angry phone call. There was only one GM who has complained about the penalties and it was when the league reached out to him. I haven’t received any calls from general managers telling me to back off, but I have received several from them telling me to stick with it and stay with the standard. I’m receiving a lot of support. But I can guarantee you that those same people won’t be happy the day I have a hearing for one of their players. And that comes with the territory. But the big picture is that we feel the game can still look like the game of hockey, but be a safer environment, especially for heads.

Q: The traditional beef with NHL discipline is its inconsistency. What can you do to make the process more consistent?

A: By making the videos and pulling back the drapes, we’re allowing people to see that what was sometimes perceived as inconsistency was actually a lack of knowledge of all the things we consider. When the number changes on a suspension from two to four to six [games], I’m telling the fans that we took into consideration that this was his first offence, or that he was a multiple offender. I’m letting people know which factors weighed heavily in my decision.

Q: Whose idea were the videos?

A: Gary Bettman and Bill Daly and [former discipline czar] Colin Campbell. This generation of players, you can tell them a message, but what they really want to do is see it. This is how they’re coached. They get called in, and they don’t get a lecture, they get shown a video. It’s how they are trained and taught. It’s not enough for them to read a memo anymore.

Q: The videos open up with the NHL shield and what sounds like jail doors clanging shut. Is that on purpose?

A: No, I’m involved with a lot of things, but sound effects are not my department.

Q: In his season-opening rant on Coach’s Corner, Don Cherry accused you and the league of trying to eliminate hitting from the game. As a player you were always a favourite of his. Were you taken aback by the attack?

A: I did grow up as a Canadian kid loving and watching Hockey Night In Canada and Don, so it’s impossible for that not to hurt you in some way. But at the same time, I’m a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities and a real belief that ultimately that’s not the case. The fact that I played the game for 21 years, and the way I played, to me, says I would guard and protect its physicality and intensity. But I do believe the game can be safer. And that’s why I think I’m the right person for the job.

Q: Cherry later went on the air and apologized to some of the people he slammed that night. Has he said sorry to you?

A: He doesn’t owe me an apology. He referred to me again last Saturday as “a fine broth of a lad.” His concern and his question are fair ones. But I don’t share that opinion and it’s a goal of mine to protect physicality. What I’m trying to eliminate, and I believe the managers and players want me to eliminate, are illegal and dangerous checks. As we’ve seen, very skilled players still have the ability to lay out devastating, clean, full bodychecks. But this new art of picking off heads, or hitting defenceless players from behind into the boards—if that’s the type of physicality that people are accusing me of erasing from the game, then I agree with them completely.

Q: Cherry illustrated his rant with a montage of classic Scott Stevens checks, including his hits on Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya. If those hits came to your attention in your new job, would they result in suspensions?

A: I think Scott Stevens is a Hall of Famer because of his timing and ability to make full bodychecks. But I’ve learned already not to retry old cases. I called Scott and we had a 30-minute conversation about the merits of hitting and the timing. And I would agree with him that 99 per cent of his hits were body-on-body, elbows down, and of the devastating-but-legal variety. And I don’t think it’s fair to Scott or anybody to retry a hit from 10 years ago with a new rule book.

Q: You called Scott Stevens after Cherry ran those clips?

A: Ya. I don’t like people speaking for me. I wanted to tell him for the record that we didn’t think he was a dirty player. And I thought it would be valuable to get his perspective on hitting. There’s still a place in hockey for a big, hard, clean check and I want to protect that. This truly is an art—an art of courage and of timing.

Q: You recently told another interviewer that the NHL may have to look at the future of fighting, and then you qualified that statement. What is your position exactly?

A: The league has always looked at all rules, including fighting, and will continue to do so. Our managers look at all aspects of the game and continue to do so year after year. There have been some changes in the past, like not leaving the bench, or third-man in, or instigating, or no tie-downs. So the league does have a history of looking at it.

Q: You fought almost 100 times in your NHL career. You’ve got a young son who plays hockey. How would you feel about him fighting?

A: How would any parent feel? I would probably feel the same way. Whether it’s on the ice or in the schoolyard, I ask him to look for other alternatives. But he also knows that there comes a time when he has to protect himself. But I’d love to imagine my son could go through life without having to do something like that. The same way you think about a variety of things you did growing up and you hope your kids don’t do that.

Q: Your current focus is on head shots and hits from behind. But are there other player safety issues you want to take a look at?

A: We’ve had a lot of focus this year on the two new rules. But we almost want to send a reminder that you still can’t do the other things either; for example we had a player chop another guy in the face and knock his teeth out, and that’s still illegal. And we’re working with the NHL Players Association on making equipment safer for the players. Specifically shoulder pads, we think they’ve become too big and too hard.

Q: As a player coming out of the 2005 lockout, you helped change the way the game is played, by spurring a crackdown on hooking and obstruction. Can you have that same sort of impact as an executive in a thankless job?

A: What I tried to be as a hockey player was involved. And I feel that way off the ice as well. I think hockey is the best of all sports, and I’m fiercely protective of it. I think there are moments where we protect traditions and moments where we evolve and advance. To me, if the concussion numbers come down and the game is safer and it filters down to minor levels, that will be a greater thank you than a nice article about me.

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