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October 10, 2011
Nine months after losing its most important star to a concussion, the NHL, led by a proactive new dean of discipline who is well acquainted with head injuries, has rededicated itself to the protection of its players
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October 10, 2011

It's A Whole New Game

Nine months after losing its most important star to a concussion, the NHL, led by a proactive new dean of discipline who is well acquainted with head injuries, has rededicated itself to the protection of its players

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Even before the first exhibition games, before he started dropping the hammer like a Wild West hanging judge, before his videos became as ubiquitous on the Internet as clips of zany, cuddly kittens, dark circles were forming under his eyes. They neatly set off the white zigzags—a C-shaped indent circling the arc of his lips on the left side, a small scar on his chin, scratches above the right side of his lip that look like choppy ice after a face-off—that once marked him as a player and now inform his desk job. The scars are bona fides that well serve Brendan Shanahan, boons to his curriculum vitae as the NHL's new vice president for violence. Like a black robe or a gavel, they legitimize him.

"Shanny's not too far removed from [playing]," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews says. "He understands the speed of the game and has a rapport with a lot of players."

Welcome to NHL 2011--12, a.k.a. Shanny World. The most significant hockey upgrades for the season are a revamped Rule 48, which now penalizes all intentional or reckless hits to the head, and a tweaked Rule 41, which broadens the interpretation of boarding. But the most intriguing change is the new man who will be fronting these calls when things go bad, a former All-Star winger who scored 656 goals, had 2,489 penalty minutes and was suspended by each of the last four men to hold his job.

Shanahan, who replaces Colin Campbell, is formally the senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations, a thin coat of linguistic whitewash that nods at prevention instead of punishment. He can't rewrite the laws, but he can enforce them with vigor. Last month Hang 'em High Shanny started with a 10-game suspension for Philadelphia recidivist Jody Shelley (five exhibition matches, five real ones) for a hit from behind and a five-game suspension (the remainder of the preseason and one regular-season game) for the Flames' Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, again for a hit from behind. Through Sunday, Shanahan was the hardest-working man in video justice this side of Judge Joe Brown, having handed out nine suspensions worth 31 regular-season games and $701,682.56. Predictably, there has been blowback. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said Shanahan was going too far, while Maple Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur, nailed two games for a head hit, complained that the NHL seemed hell-bent on removing all hitting from the game. Shanahan, meanwhile, explained each decision with succinct eloquence in videos that were posted on the league's website. The production values are pedestrian, but in a suit jacket and open-necked dress shirt ... damn, he looks ready for his close-up.

Pre-Shanahan, NHL discipline had been like the story of the Three Bears. Campbell, who held the job for 13 years, would announce, say, a suspension of three games for some act of temporary lunacy and hockey's chattering classes would then pronounce it too hot, too cold, or, infrequently, juuuuuust right. Now the league is offering the Three Bears on Steroids with the hope that muscular suspensions, which seem to have had minimal impact as deterrents in the past—Shanahan's case load is full, isn't it?—will modify behavior.

Shanahan is viewed as a progressive because of his work with the competition committee that helped reshape the postlockout game in 2005, but he has yet to tiptoe outside the box, even if his amped-up justice has pushed back its walls. There are ideas floating in the hockey ether, proposed by, among others, recently retired winger Paul Kariya, that could further reduce head shots.

One proposal would spread the pain of a suspension. If a player were suspended, a team would not be allowed to replace him on the roster and would be obliged to dress 19 for a game, which might bring dressing-room pressure from teammates to bear on a habitual scofflaw. (Some NHL officials privately worry over a potential unintended consequence of the idea: elevated risk of injury for those forced to play more minutes. Of course, there was no hand-wringing over increased injury risk when the Devils dressed only 17 for one game last October because of salary-cap issues.) Another suggestion involves fines for a franchise if one of its players is suspended, making the employer pay as much as the employee. Take, for example, the Penguins' Matt Cooke, perpetrator of the season-ending blind-side hit on the Bruins' Marc Savard in March 2010. (There was no penalty, or suspension, on the play.) Cooke's salary cap hit is $1.8 million. If Cooke, who has been suspended five times, costs Pittsburgh another, say, $1 million in fines this season ... well, the club might like him a lot less as a $2.8 million player. "Those ideas," Stars captain Brenden Morrow says with a nod, "have air." The $100,000 fine leveled against the Islanders for their role in a Slap Shot-ian brawl against the Penguins last February conceivably could serve as a template, although the NHL probably would have to increase that fine by a factor of three for this approach to have any real effect. Without directly endorsing the concept, Shanahan says, "My interest is in changing player behavior. Putting myself in the skates of players, I know there would be an enormous amount of fear if I had just affected my franchise."

Shanahan frets about the brain. Toward the end of his 21-year career he sustained a concussion from a collision that knocked him out and left him with vertigo for weeks. He watched his father, Donal, fade away because of Alzheimer's. He is working with former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider, now a special assistant to Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, to help manufacturers develop higher density foam padding for elbow and shoulder pads, which would eliminate the hard plastic caps—a change that could be in place for next season. "Whether it's Sidney Crosby or some guy in his first NHL game, we're concerned," Shanahan says. "All we're doing about concussions and making the game safer was well underway before Sidney got hurt."

Sidney Crosby used to be the face of the game. Now he is also the face of the game's most pressing problem.

Since he was felled last January by the head shots heard round the world(David Steckel's hit in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, followed four nights later by Victor Hedman's check from behind) the tone of the discussion about head shots has changed. Those concerned about hockey losing its innate qualities of physicality and intimidation—including former coach and general manager Mike Milbury, a TV analyst, who in 2008 coined the unfortunate word "pansification" on the CBC—now share the megaphone with head-shot abolitionists. Crosby's concussion symptoms have abated. He practiced in five-on-five situations with his Pittsburgh teammates for the first time on Sept. 25 but has already been ruled out for the start of a season that can't come soon enough following a summer that, as one league executive expressed with heartfelt simplicity, "sucked."

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