When word started to leak out more than three months ago that Colin Campbell would be stepping down from his position as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, a title he has held since taking over for Brian Burke in 1998, I was more than a little excited.
I have been one of Campbell’s biggest critics for the way he handles the discipline process; his rulings rarely if ever seemed to follow any kind of logic, precedent, or any other legal guideline. Rather, he seemed to pick and choose whether or not to suspend a player based on their alleged “star power” and the lengths of suspensions very well could have been drawn from a hat for all their consistency.
And then we have the whole e-mail thing. Campbell was essentially caught red-handed trying to influence then head of officiating Steven Walkom to make calls that favored his son Greg Campbell. He also played a part in the wrongful dismissal of referee Dean Warren, who Campbell felt had unfairly penalized his son in a league game.
But for as excited as I was at the possibility of this clown stepping down from a position that he has wielded to his own advantage time and again, I was apprehensive at the possibility of who could be replacing him.
Would the next NHL discipline czar make Campbell’s rulings and decision making process seem effective and concise by comparison?
My fears were put to rest when on July 1st, 2011 Brendan Shanahan was named as Campbell’s replacement.
Since his retirement from a Hall of Fame-worthy career on November 17th, 2009 Shanahan has been on a meteoric rise up the NHL’s front office ladder.
During the NHL lockout that robbed us of the 2004-2005 season, Shanahan was the mastermind behind a series of meetings that helped shape the game into the obstruction-free one that we now know and love. His Research and Development camps have continued since, and continue to tweak the game with new and inventive ideas.
Now, with him taking over as head of discipline, I am completely confident that he will be a breath of fresh air into a process that had essentially been run into the ground and robbed of any credibility.
And if there’s anything Shanahan has, it’s credibility, from the fans, his peers, and the NHL.
Here is a recent article from Yahoo! Sports in italics, with my comments in bold.
Without ever overseeing a discipline hearing or handing out a suspension, the NHL’s new sheriff is already familiar with the ins and outs of hockey justice.
Shanahan and Campbell’s styles will be a contrast in realities.
“I played this sport, I understand the passion that’s involved,” Shanahan said during the NHL’s recent research and development camp. “I broke a lot of rules when I played and wasn’t always happy when I got punished—even when I deserved it. I totally understand the passion that’s involved in hockey and it’s one of the reasons why hockey’s a great sport.”
I think it’s important that Shanahan knows that the players he is dealing with more often than not won’t be happy with his decisions. That’s not his concern. It’s not his job to make the players happy. His job is to make sure that the rulings he hands out are fair and consistent. That’s it.
Shanahan assumed the sport’s most thankless position when he inherited the disciplinary duties from Colin Campbell on the eve of the Stanley Cup final. They’ll take full effect in the next few weeks.
The last four men to hold the office all suspended Shanahan: Brian O’Neill (five games in 1990), Gil Stein (six days in 1993), Brian Burke (one game in 1996) and Campbell (two games in 1999).
“This is the third time Brendan has been disciplined,” Stein said after suspending Shanahan for high-sticking Minnesota’s Mike Craig. “I hope he gets the message.”
It eventually got through as Shanahan played the final decade of his career without receiving a suspension before moving almost directly into a position with the league office when he retired in 2009.
I think that while Shanahan ultimately got the message (although it took him gaining repeat offender status to do so), many players do not. They simply don’t know where the line is oftentimes, and therefore are likely to repeat past mistakes.
The job is as demanding as they come. Campbell was worn out after serving 13 years in the highly scrutinized position, eventually suggesting to Commissioner Gary Bettman in March that it might be time for a change.
Worn out, facing nationwide scrutiny for an obvious bias…tomato, tomatoe.
Shanahan was a natural fit to replace him.
“He’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s passionate about the game,” Bettman said. “He was a great player and he gives us a (new) dimension. He’s played the modern game.”
Added Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, a former teammate of Shanahan’s in Detroit: “He’s got a real passion for the game and he has a lot of ideas and he played the game for a long time, so yeah, I think he’s well-suited for it.”
This is a really important point to me. He has the respect of virtually everyone around the league. Colin Campbell’s name had essentially devolved into a dirty word around the league. It was never brought up in a positive context.
Not only does Shanahan plan to introduce some new elements to the job—he told Yahoo Sports recently that a video will be released following each discipline hearing to explain the decision—it will be done in a different way than his predecessor.
This is exactly what I mean when I say that there will be noticeable differences between Shanahan’s style and Campbell’s. While Campbell’s rulings never seemed to mesh with the reasons he offered for them, Shanahan will make use of technology available to show exactly where the offender went wrong. Eventually, when there are enough rulings of a similar type on record, Shanahan will be able to show multiple videos to demonstrate why one offense was more grievous than another.
Shanahan will continue to be based out of New York, rather than Toronto, and is expected to dole out harsher penalties. Bettman made it clear that was one of the primary motivations for the change when it was announced in June.
“We’ve had a lot of communication with people within our own organization,” Shanahan said. “(I’ve also) been communicating with the players’ association and players and general managers—reaching out to people in hockey. A lot of it is listening and communicating and learning and getting ready to do a challenging job.”
The demands will likely surface immediately. Campbell was forced to review questionable incidents during the preseason each of the last two years, including giving former New York Islanders minor-leaguer Pascal Morency(notes) an eight-game ban in 2010 for leaving the bench to start a fight.
In recent years, almost every instance of a player crossing the line has been accompanied by fan debates on Twitter and talk radio about what the severity of the sentence should be.
The quickest way to put a debate to bed is to be able to prove yourself. Intelligently communicate why a decision was made, and especially follow the precedents you set, and detractors won’t have a leg to stand on.
While GMs and players rarely complained publicly about decisions made by Campbell, they were more than willing to share their feelings with him behind closed doors.
“It’s a tough job,” Yzerman said. “Colin just went through it, Brian Burke went through it. He’s in that position of every decision you make, nobody’s happy with it—(the suspension’s) not long enough or it’s too long. I think you tune it out and make the right decision.”
You’ll never be able to make everyone happy, it’s true. Any suspension or non-suspension will be greeted with the typical “not long enough”/”too long” arguments. However, if you are consistent in your rulings, fans will at least be able to say “Player A got X games for the exact same thing, so this ruling makes sense”. In Campbell’s case, it was more like Player A, B and C all committed “offense W” and received X, Y and Z games, respectively.
Bettman believes Shanahan has the right mix of confidence and experience to do just that.
The commissioner points out that every position in professional sports comes with scrutiny and doesn’t believe Shanahan will constantly be cast in a negative light while handling controversial incidents.
“I’m not sure making difficult decisions makes you the bad cop,” Bettman said.
Whether or not the bad cop role is one he is aiming to fill, rumor has it that Shanahan plans to be much stricter with his rulings than his predecessor. With an increased awareness of concussions and their effects both short and long-term, it will be vital to be ever vigilant in punishing players who put the health of their brethren in jeopardy.
“I have every confidence that based on his vast knowledge of this game he’s going to do what he thinks is right. People may agree with him, people may disagree with him. But he’s going to do what he thinks is right and I have complete confidence in his judgment.”
As do I.