Colin Campbell, the preferred piñata for hockey fans who don’t understand the NHL’s power structure, stepped down Wednesday from his role as the league’s chief disciplinarian. And while many in the hockey world will be pleased to see him move on after nearly 13 years of handing out fines and suspensions, the reality is it didn’t matter whether Glen Campbell, Ken Campbell or a can of Campbell’s soup was in the role.
No, the truth is Colin Campbell has always taken direction on how to do his job from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, just as Bettman has always received his marching orders from team owners. The fact is if a majority of those owners wanted severe punishments for egregious acts to be consistently applied, such a system would have been in place long before Campbell took the job in 1998.
By design, Campbell’s verdicts never were intended to have any rhyme or reason to them. You can’t speak out of both sides of your mouth as a league and have it both ways – telling one group of people one of your priorities is player safety and telling another group that you’re dedicated to so-called “physical play” – if you have a clearly defined connection between an illegal act and its punishment.
The recipe for Campbell’s rulings included a dash of character witnesses here, a pinch of prior incidents there and a dollop of injuries suffered during the incident. But you never knew exactly how much weight Campbell put on any of those things when he sat out one player for one act and left another player unpunished for the same act.
Even after the outcry over head shots pushed the NHL into adopting Rule 48 this season, he and the league nearly disfigured themselves – think Mel Gibson separating his own shoulder to get out of a straightjacket in Lethal Weapon 2 – figuring out excuses to not follow through and provide players with as full a protection as the rulebook allows.
That’s why we heard all that nonsense about the idea of a “hitting zone” after Raffi Torres bulldozed Brent Seabrook in the first round of this year’s post-season. Instantly, a concept that was not common in the hockey vernacular was being thrown over the side of the good ship NHL as an anchor to prevent the league from entering modern waters and to stop it from showing players, coaches, management types and fans that this time around, it was going to be as serious as it was about obstruction tactics.
You needn’t be a longtime observer of the NHL to know the rulebook isn’t called to the letter. We all know that if you’re a third- or fourth-liner and you throw an elbow at an opponent, you’ll be judged by a much harsher standard than you would be if you’re an elbow-throwing top talent such as Dany Heatley.
The league can make any excuse it wants to rationalize that reality, but the eyes do not lie.
Campbell probably should have left the job years ago and certainly erred, if not in the email controversy that tainted his reputation, then certainly in the belief that email was a private system of correspondence. But I don’t blame him for hanging around too long; he took pride in doing what he was directed to do and in a subjective role such as his, there was no way he was going to leave it in pristine condition.
Same goes for Campbell’s replacement. Brendan Shanahan, one of the game’s most affable and popular players, will be the NHL’s new chief disciplinarian, which tells me he is feeling overly appreciated in his life and is looking for a new direction.
They say you don’t make friends with salad and you certainly don’t make them by accepting Campbell’s now-former duties. Fairly or not, Shanahan will now have his motives examined, questioned and conspiracy-theorized about. You’d wish him luck, but he’d be better off being wished man-sized earplugs and a full Kevlar leotard.
The smarter thing to do would have been to set up a supplementary discipline panel of industry people. Former veteran referee Kerry Fraser and others have suggested that a three-person panel consisting of one league representative, one NHLPA official and a neutral third party. I love that idea. If you adopted it, you would remove the notion of individual bias in the decision-making process behind suspensions and fines. No one man would have the word “boogey” in front of his designation, because it would take two others to agree with the logic.
But that’s not how the league has chosen to proceed. Right now, they’re only delivering on the image of improvement. Along those lines, Bettman announced the formation of a Player Safety Department also to be overseen by Shanahan.
With all due respect to the new Punisher-and-Protector-In-Chief, his words will be believed when there are actions to back them up.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.