TORONTO – Brendan Shanahan knows exactly what he’s getting in to.
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.
“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.”
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 with the start of the 2011-12 season.
Amazingly, he’s just the sixth man to be put in charge of punishment since 1946, when Clarence Campbell started a 31-year reign as NHL president.
The last four men to hold office all suspended Shanahan at one point during their tenure: 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.
The new 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.
Shanahan was a natural fit to replace him.
“He’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he’s passionate about the game, he was a great player and he gives us a (new) dimension,” said Bettman. “He’s played the modern game.”
Added Lightning GM 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.”
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.
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.
The task of preparing for the job has pretty much been underway ever since.
“We’ve had a lot of communication with people within our own organization,” said Shanahan. “(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 pre-season each of the last two years, including giving former New York Islanders minor-leaguer Pascal Morency 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.
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,” said Yzerman. “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.”
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,” said Bettman. “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.”
A closer look at some of the incidents Brendan Shanahan was punished for during his NHL career:
Oct. 21, 1987—Suspended one game for getting involved with a fan in Pittsburgh who poured beer into the penalty box.
Jan. 13, 1990—Suspended five games for high-sticking Quebec’s Michel Petit in the face.
Dec. 22, 1992—Suspended six days for hitting Minnesota’s Mike Craig in the face with his stick.
Oct. 11, 1996—Suspended one game and fined US$1,000 for cross-checking Edmonton’s Greg de Vries.
Nov. 7, 1999—Suspended two games after getting into a stick-swinging incident with Tampa’s Darcy Tucker.