When the NHL replaced chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell with Brendan Shanahan last spring and gave him the reassuring title of senior vice-president, player safety, I really wanted to believe things were going to change. But we’re nearly halfway through the 2011-12 season – and the further we get into it, the clearer it is that Sheriff Shanny’s brand of justice is closer to Blazing Saddles comedy than Walking Tall inspirational tough guy Buford Pusser.
Never was that clearer than after the suspension lowered upon Blackhawks agitator Daniel Carcillo was announced Wednesday. For drilling Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert into the end boards – injuring Gilbert’s knee in the process – Carcillo received a seven-game suspension. Now, that may sound like a decent number of games, especially considering the longest suspension Shanahan has levied was an eight-gamer on Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski.
But when you consider this marked the 10th occasion Carcillo has been either fined or suspended by the NHL and then consider the league still doesn’t see a need to sit him down for a minimum of 10 percent of the regular season, the punishment doesn’t seem so harsh at all. Indeed, viewed through a long-term lens, Carcillo’s suspension is about as meek and future-chaos-enabling as any of Campbell’s often-baffling verdicts.
Contrast that with the NBA, where Ron Artest was banned for 86 games (73 in the regular season and 13 in the playoffs) for the infamous 2004 “Malice At The Palace” brawl in Detroit. Artest lost more than $7 million because of his reckless actions – and oddly enough, he hasn’t committed any egregious acts since. Carcillo, on the other hand, basically committed the same dirty foul he did less than three months ago when he pushed Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen into the boards from behind. For doing so, he received a “whopping” two-game suspension that cost him $8,378 in lost salary, a financial number that represents a potential weekend spent out at the clubs for pro hockey players. Now, Carcillo will lose $66,158. In total, Carcillo gets less than $75,000 in punishments for being reckless with two different players, both of whom are important parts of their teams, in a little more than two months.
That pales in comparison to the $536,585 Wisniewski lost after elbowing Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck in the pre-season. And that illustrates how ludicrous the league has become. If you polled all NHL players and asked them whether Wisniewski or Carcillo was the dirtier player, it would be a landslide in favor of the latter. Guys like Carcillo, Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta, Phoenix’s Raffi Torres and, prior to this season at least, Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, are precisely the kind of repeat-offender cheap-shot artists NHLers most loathe and want punished heavily. Yet somehow, Wisniewski has been the hardest-hit player under the Shanahan Era.
That just doesn’t add up.
Neither does the impossible-to-deny fact that the average suspension length by month has dropped by more than 50 percent – from 7.13 to 3.00 – since September. Shanahan and the league say players have adjusted to stricter rules on head shots, but that can’t be proven. And look at the caliber of players who’ve received the most serious punishments: goons such as Jody Shelley (who got 10 games) and Andy Sutton (who got sat down for eight games after getting suspended for five games in November); and fringe NHLers like J-F Jacques (nine games) and Tom Sestito (six games). Are you telling me no top-six forward or top-four defenseman has done something as reckless as Wisniewski? Sorry, but I don’t buy that for a second.
So what we have, apparently, is the same old system that ignores the actions of top-tier talents and doesn’t go after even the worst repeat offenders with any teeth. OK, maybe it has one more tooth than it did under Campbell and, from a public relations perspective, Shanahan’s video explanations offer more transparency than the previous administration. (And as I’ve always said, Shanahan takes his direction from commissioner Gary Bettman, who takes direction from the 30 team owners. Ultimately, they are the ones most complicit in this mess.)
But the proof the league is not intent on dramatically cleaning up its game is right there for anyone who wants to see it. Check out this risible statement from Carcillo after his hit on Gilbert:
“It’s weird now,” Carcillo told Sportsnet.ca after the Gilbert hit. “Now, you have to process every hit that you're about to make. It's really, really hard. But if you don't want to sit out games and get fined, you have to start doing it.”
Yeah, imagine that – you have to actually be responsible for your play. The fact Carcillo has suddenly arrived at this important philosophical conclusion tells you all you need to know about how little of an impression all his previous run-ins with the long arm of the NHL’s law have made on him.
In reality, it’s not a long arm at all. As Shanahan is showing, it’s about as short as it ever was. And that’s why you can bet Carcillo will be suspended again when he victimizes another player with the NHL’s tacit consent.
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