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Keefe To The City: Brendan Shanahan Is Ruining The NHL

The league disciplinarian has turned the playoffs into a gongshow
(Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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“I’m Brendan Shanahan of the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety … and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.”

If you have never watched a Shanahan suspension video on NHL.com before, that’s how he opens the video by letting the viewer know who he is and what department he works for (except for the “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing” part). But chances are if you’re watching one of his videos it’s because you’re interested in the infraction being reviewed. And if you’re interested in watching a video of an infraction it’s because you watch hockey. And if you watch hockey then you know who Brendan Shanahan is. And if you know who Brendan Shanahan is then you know why he is the Vice President of Player Safety and how he got the job.

I was ecstatic like everyone else when Shanahan took over for Colin Campbell, who was more incompetent than the Yankees’ Clay Rapada could ever be. Campbell had become a running joke around the NHL and any form of replacement would have been better than him. I was satisfied with the decision to give the responsibilities of NHL Judge to Shanahan, as he would become the head disciplinarian for the league. But what I didn’t know was that he would become Colin Campbell.

Does Brendan Shanahan think he’s doing a good job because he makes videos to explain the infractions and the punishments he determines for the infractions? Because, if anything, the videos make his decisions look even more nonsensical. At least when Campbell was recklessly throwing around suspensions (or sometimes a lack thereof), there wasn’t video evidence of him narrating plays so we could see inside his inconsistent mind.

In Game 2 of the Rangers-Senators series, Matt Carkner dressed with the mission of fighting Brian Boyle for getting physical with Erik Karlsson, and I have no problem with Carkner dressing for this purpose. But when Boyle decided he wasn’t going to fight Carkner on the first attempt, Carkner decided he was going to fight anyway and sucker-punched Boyle and then continued to punch him as he went down to the ice. In the process, Brandon Dubinsky went to the aid of his defenseless teammate and was given a game misconduct for not allowing Carkner to finish a job that could have ended Boyle’s season or maybe even his career.

Carkner was suspended one game for a pre-meditated attack (which once again I don’t have a problem with since it’s part of the game, but square up or take care of it in the correct setting), but an attack against a guy who didn’t square up with him and led to Carkner doing what he was set out to do anyway. One game! Here’s what Shanahan said in his NHL.com video review of Carkner’s infraction.

“Carkner is excessive in his approach. It is important to note that Carkner has acted similarly in the past and injured an opponent in the process. In a game at Ottawa on Dec. 31, 2009, in reaction to a bodycheck thrown at a teammate, Carkner got the jump on a New York Islander forward and punched him before he could react and defend himself, fracturing his orbital bone. We have taken into consideration that Boyle suffered no apparent injury as a result of this infraction and remained in the game.”

So, let’s recap. Because Boyle wasn’t hurt and because Carkner didn’t fracture yet another player’s orbital bone, the suspension is only one game. That seems fair. Punishments and consequences should definitely be based on the result of the player’s action and not the player’s action or intent. But here’s my question: Is there any doubt that Carkner was trying to break Boyle’s orbital bone and just failed to do so?

It’s only partially Shanahan’s fault that he makes decisions based on the result of the hit or punch or check. For years the NHL has awarded a four-minute power play for a high-sticking penalty that draws blood. Any amount of blood. It could be a scrape or a cut the size of a pencil tip, or it could be a gash that requires 18 stitches or a trip to the emergency room. It doesn’t matter. If there’s blood it’s four minutes. But you could high-stick an opponent and break their jaw or their cheek or their orbital bone or blind them and as long as any of these things don’t draw blood then it’s just a two-minute penalty. No big deal.

Now also in Game 2, Carl Hagelin finished a check high with his hands and elbow on Daniel Alfredsson, which resulted in Alfredsson suffering a concussion and leaving the game. And because Alfredsson was injured on the hit, Hagelin, who doesn’t have a history or a reputation of anything remotely close to being dirty, was suspended three games.

Now if Hagelin’s infraction had been the first infraction of the NHL season and we had no further knowledge or records of previous elbow infractions that result in head injuries then yes, you could make the case his punishment is just since it would set a precedent. (We’ll get to the word “precedent” and teach Shanahan the meaning of the word later on.) But when, in the same game, there is a more dangerous play from a more dangerous player after months and months of inconsistent suspensions from Shanahan, then yes, there’s a serious problem with claiming that Hagelin’s suspension is just.

Let’s look at three different incidents that happened this week with the two involving the Rangers happening on the same day and the one involving the Predators and Red Wings happening three days before.

Carl Hagelin, with no suspension history or reputation of dirty play, receives a three-game suspension for finishing a check and hitting star Daniel Alfredsson high that results in a concussion.

Matt Carkner, with a history of the same exact act, receives a one-game suspension for jumping non-star Brian Boyle, sucker-punching him and continuing to beat him while on the ice, but the incident doesn’t result in injury.

Shea Weber punches star Henrik Zetterberg’s in the back of the head and then uses the same hand that punched to drive Zetterberg’s head into the glass and dasher and receives a $2,500 fine, as the incident doesn’t result in an injury.

(I make sure to note who is considered a “star” and who isn’t since this also clearly impacts Shanahan’s decisions.)

Does anyone see a pattern here? Do any of these punishments have anything in common with each other? Does any of this make sense to anyone other than Brendan Shanahan?

On Monday morning, Shanahan went on Boomer and Carton to justify his suspension of Hagelin (which he failed to logically do). And if you plan on listening to the interview, which I strongly recommend if you think Shanahan is good at his job or makes sound decisions, then I also recommend investing in some of Mugatu’s “crazy pills” from Zoolander because Shanahan’s arguments and logic are so confusing that they will make you question if what he’s saying is actually real life. Here are some epic highlights that came from Shanahan’s mouth in the interview.

On why Carl Hagelin is suspended for three games and Matt Carkner is suspended for one game: “The biggest difference between the two plays is there is head injury and concussion on one and no injury on the other. Now that doesn’t mean that one guy gets off and the other guy doesn’t.”

(I almost feel like this quote should be written above the doors to the NHL offices entrance the way that “I would like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” used to be written across the front of Yankee Stadium.)

Actually that’s exactly what it means because you said that’s what it means just moments later. Shanahan had a chance to set a precedent at the beginning of the year, but he chose not to. I hate to reference arguably the worst movie ever made in 50 First Dates, but is there any denying that Shanahan is Drew Barrymore here? Actually he’s worse. Barrymore wakes up everyday forgetting who she is and the decisions she has made, but Shanahan can’t even make it through the day without erasing suspension decisions he has made since he makes multiple suspension decisions in the same day and they have no correlation to each other. But Shanahan didn’t set a precedent and now suspensions are made with what I like to think is a cootie catcher complete with the NHL shield on it. In most sports you know what a suspension will be for a certain infraction, but there’s no one in the hockey world that can tell you with any certainty what a suspension will be for a specific incident after it happens, and this includes Shanahan. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the interview when he sort of gets stuck answering about what the suspension would have been if Alfredsson didn’t get hurt or if it will be reduced if he comes back in the series.)

Shanahan has set the tone for the league by saying, “You can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t result in an injury.” So if the Penguins trail big in Game 4 and a sweep is inevitable, it would be wise for Peter Laviolette to remove his players from the ice because if the Penguins have brushed up on their Marty McSorley, Claude Lemieux, Darcy Tucker and Tie Domi YouTube watching, they are free to duplicate any of the league’s all-time cheap shots … as long as they don’t injure or concuss anyone.

On Carkner not landing many punches to Boyle’s face: “He hits him with five more punches in the arm, shoulder and back and not in the head.”

Ah, and here’s Shanahan sticking up for Carkner. “Come on! Most of the punches didn’t even hit Boyle in the face! It wasn’t that bad!” Do you know how bad Carkner’s assault was? It was bad enough that when I saw the first replays of it during the game I figured Carkner would be gone for the rest of the series, if not the rest of the playoffs (not that he was going to play in anymore games for the Senators anyway). But one game? ONE GAME?!?!?! Does anyone think Carkner was trying to hit Boyle in the arm, shoulder and back? Or was it because Boyle was on the ice after taking a punch to the jaw before the follow-up punches?

On Shea Weber driving Henrik Zetterberg’s face into the glass: “I think that he pushed his face into the glass. I was very close to a one-game suspension on that.”

You “think” he pushed his face into the glass. You “think?!?!?!?!” You don’t “know?” You aren’t “sure?” Oh, but you were “close” to a one-game suspension for Weber trying to break Zetterberg’s face and neck. Well that makes everything better. But because Zetterberg wasn’t injured, Weber can pay $2,500 and try his luck breaking Zetterberg’s face and neck in Game 4.

What if Shanahan held his current job when Chris Simon tried to behead Ryan Hollweg as if he were Ned Stark in Game of Thrones? Because Hollweg was able to get back up on his own skate would Simon have avoided suspension and just been given a $2,500 citation for using his stick as a medieval sword?

There’s no time for Shanahan to learn his new job on the fly, which he is clearly tying to while he makes things up in his videos and interviews as he goes. The problem is his decisions and suspensions have long-lasting effects that go deeper than just changing the course of a game or a series. Shanahan’s job is more important than deciding who should lose pay for a couple of games or should or shouldn’t be allowed to dress. He has the ability to change the course of a playoff series or a championship or the history of the game, as well as influence the jobs and livelihoods of others, and that’s why it’s OK to call into question his job and his livelihood.

Let’s say Shanahan suspends Player X for a few games in a postseason series because he was involved in an infraction that resulted in an injury. Now Player X’s team loses their first-round playoff series because of Player X’s unwarranted suspension. Now Player X’s owner is upset that his team didn’t make it out of the first round after lofty expectations for several seasons and he fires Player X’s coach and general manager and trades away some of Player X’s teammates and uproots their lives and families’ lives because of another first-round postseason exit. Is this an extreme scenario for Shanahan’s decision making? Sure. Is it out of the realm of possibility? No.

At the end of Shanahan’s interview with Boomer and Carton, Boomer tells him he’s going to have a busy day today after the Penguins-Flyers gongshow from Game 3, and Shanahan responds about handing out more suspensions by saying, “I’m not done yet.” It’s too bad because I wish he was done, and I’m not talking about handing out suspensions.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe