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Mr. Shanahan's Office is Now Open
To suspend or not to suspend
10/26/13 - By Ken Smyth -

There is every reason for me to be pissed about NHL Vice-Principal Brendan Shanahan tossing suspensions around. But I'm not. Actually I wish him well.

I started following this league when players didn't wear helmets, some goalies didn't wear masks, and cheap-shot yappers didn't stick around very long. This was also a league where players used wooden sticks, and slow skates; where anybody over 6 foot was considered a big guy. Protective equipment was primitive, and a forward who blocked a shot might get benched by his coach unless it was a penalty kill in a big game. Off-season training was a round of golf followed by four rounds of beer.

Of course, things are different now. Every sport that uses a clock and scale shows that athletes are getting bigger and faster compared to twenty or thirty years ago. Hockey players are too. They also have better equipment and pay more attention to conditioning; you pay a guy multi-millions per season and he's not going to be selling sporting goods to make ends meet over the summer. Simple physics establishes that a 20% bigger guy going 20% faster hits you with about 73% more kinetic energy.

Better athletes and better equipment makes for a faster and more exciting game. I like it. But owners have a reason to worry. Over the summer, the NFL signed a $765 million check as a settlement with a group of former players who brought suit over the long-term health effects of concussions suffered during their careers. For pro football, that's a cost of doing business; for the NHL it's about 10% of the value of all franchises combined. Of course the NHL owners took notice.

There's a pretty strong case to be made that various NHL rule changes over the years contributed to a rise in head injuries now. At one time, hockey players were self- policing. Someone who layed a cheap hit on top of a questionable check was likely to get pounded by an enforcer from the other team. This kept play reasonably clean due to mutual self-interest. The on-ice officials not only tolerated the system, often they made use of it by turning a blind eye at the right time. There was only one referee, and he couldn't be everywhere.

The misnamed "instigator" rule came about in 1977, supposedly to deal with the excessive number of multi-player fights that were occurring in the league. It was easier than suspending the Philadelphia Flyers. The rule added a minor penalty and a misconduct to the third man into a fight. This squeezed the 'policemen' role down to a little-used fourth line player. Coaches can't have a top-nine/top-four guy sitting for 17 minutes, even if he was sticking up for his teammate.

Thanks to this rule, guys who threw an extra elbow or late cross-check no longer needed to look over their shoulder as much. A second referee was added, that didn't help. With obstruction penalties, removal of center-line off sides, and lower tolerance on hooking people are moving much faster through center ice. Skilled players take advantage, but slower players are running out of ways to stop them. That's where the cheap stuff comes in. Owners run the league, and a near-minimum salary player with a pattern of sending multi-million dollar players out with head shots will need to change his style or his profession.

A hard, clean check on an opponent wakes a team up and gets a crowd on its feet. There's also the aspect of physical intimidation, to make a guy think twice about going into a corner. But nobody likes to see a player come off the ice on a stretcher. The spate of five and ten game suspensions seem to be hitting a lot of usual suspects. It's like seeing the Highway Patrol out on 280: a few get tickets but everybody slows down. The big question here is what comes later. Will the same standard of justice apply when a star (Chara) whacks on a third-line player? For there to be a real change in the style of play things need to be consistent for everybody, and all the time.

Remember game 4 of the first round of the playoffs last April? Referee Kelly Sutherland called Daniel Sedin for boarding Tommy Wingels during overtime. Sutherland remembers it. It was a good call, but Sutherland didn't work again in the playoffs after that game. Will the NHL management stick with a strict standard of what's allowed and what's not until June or will things start to slough off in March as the playoffs get closer? Will it be applied to everyone? I'm sure that the officials, too, are watching their cues from the front office.


Contact Ken at at kensmyth@letsgosharks.com


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