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Playing safe: Brendan Shanahan might have the toughest job in the NHL — protecting the players from themselves

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NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan

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NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan

The passion in most hockey fans will rarely allow them to look at the suspension of one of their players in a cold and clinical manner.

But that's exactly how NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan and his department must approach supplemental discipline

Fans, media, players and team personnel love to rail about the apparent inconsistencies in Shanahan's work. To the conspiracy theorists among us, maybe even the corruption.

"There is far too much scrutiny in our job to ever do it dishonestly. We know people won't always agree with our decisions, which we respect, but we don't like when people question our integrity," said Shanahan in a lengthy interview with the Free Press Friday. "I've seen a change in hockey with injuries to players getting too serious. I want players' careers to be safer and longer and their post-career time to be healthier. I'm passionate about the game of hockey and making it safer and at the same time keeping it the passionate and physical game we love."

The longtime player and likely Hall of Famer has the most polarizing job in hockey. Quite literally, not one of his decisions will ever please everyone involved.

Given the nickname Shana-Ban, he is the man on the video explaining why a player is being suspended or showing why an injurious hit was devastating yet legal. He takes the brunt of the abuse while carrying out the wishes of the NHL's 30 general managers.

It's a job no one can do right. So why take it on? Here's Shanahan on life in the prison that has become his office.

FP: When you make a decision, what do fans, media, players and managers miss in your message?

SHANAHAN: First and foremost, we do this as a group. We have a command centre where we watch every game and we clip every incident. We see something and we're quickly making a determination and a review. We probably review 10 times as many incidents as people realize. Some of what we're clipping, we know isn't going to go to a hearing but it might relate and give us scale when something is closer to going to a hearing. I believe, in order to understand what is a two-game elbowing suspension, you have to have in your head what is a two-minute elbowing minor. We're not smarter than other hockey people; at this moment we're just more experienced in this field. Last full season we had approximately 70 suspensions but we clipped well over 800 clips. You have to have the body of work. You can't just make judgments every month or so.

FP: Is there a framework or a template that you work off?

SHANAHAN: We've created a template. Our group is about transparency. We want to be predictable. There is a template and it's on nhl.com under player safety and its title is education and I believe it's 11 different infractions where we've made video that goes through the steps of each infraction and what we're looking for that would rise something to the level of supplemental discipline and what isn't subject to supplemental discipline. What knee-on-knee play constitutes a penalty and nothing more, what knee-on-knee play is a fine and what knee-on-knee play is a suspension. We have those videos and they do exist and we put them out on Twitter and in certain respects we're supplemental-discipline geeks. It's all we do. We eat, breathe and sleep this stuff. Most people don't want to pay attention to it until it involves themselves or one of their players. I've had people call me and say, "My players don't know the difference between a legal check and an illegal check. You should put together a video reference library." And I'll say it's there.

FP: Do you get decisions wrong?

SHANAHAN: On many decisions it's not a matter of right vs. wrong. There are times when we hear rational, thoughtful opinions that support a different conclusion than ours and we respect that. Many of the decisions we have to make are not based on black and white, but grey. Ultimately, the responsibility lands on us to make that final decision and we are qualified to do that, based on the fact that we do this and focus on this every day. Aside from reciting a fact or rule incorrectly, we don't tell somebody with a different opinion from us that they are wrong. We provide the reasons that helped us come to our decision and that we simply disagree.

FP: Do you think you're making a difference?

SHANAHAN: Here's what we've been asked to do by the keepers of this game -- the players, the general managers and the owners. "We want you to make the game safer, but we also don't want you to take out the physicality. We want big hits, but we want you guys to draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn't." With all due respect to a lot of really smart hockey people, that line may be different for a lot of different people. For a columnist in one city, for an ex-player in another city, for a coach in one city or a GM in another city. They may have different lines. But it's our line and our decisions. We have to be consistent and not worry about how a GM in one market feels the game should be played... Getting back to your original question, we see a lot of players making better decisions.

FP: Can the NHL eliminate all checks to the head?

SHANAHAN: If the league and the players' association wanted to take the rule in that direction, then we would be in charge of enforcing that rule. I often have to remind people that my department doesn't make up rules, we enforce the rules given to us. My own personal feeling is that the game may go there. It would certainly make it very difficult to check. Maybe that's OK. I think people would be surprised at how many hits would be deemed illegal. That decision won't come from us, it will come from the players and the board of governors.

FP: Did you realize this job would be as polarizing as it has been and does the criticism bother you some days?

SHANAHAN: To be honest, it bothers me some days because we are human. How can it not? It bothered me as a player when I was criticized, but it never made me want to quit. What you rely upon is what you've been taught to do: Prepare, be transparent, communicate with your group and follow the rules. There are no wins in our decisions. We always upset one group. There is some criticism that is constructive. We've been doing this for two years and I'd say we're better at it than when we started. You can't tune people out. You also have to understand when an opinion is uninformed and just passionate and when an opinion can make you better.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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