For 21 seasons Brendan Shanahan played in the NHL. By almost any measure you can think of he was successful; he won three Stanley Cups, finished eleventh all-time in goals with 656, scored over 1,300 points, and is the only player in NHL history with more than 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. On top of his NHL accomplishments he also won a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics. Shanahan will be elected into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot and I think it’s safe to say that he was liked by the majority of NHL fans over the course of his career.
But rather than sit back and reflect an excellent career, maybe taking a cushy job with the NHL, Shanahan has instead decided to turn heel, a la Bret "Hit Man" Hart, and become the NHL’s head of discipline. For the past thirteen seasons Colin Campbell held that position and it is without a doubt one of the toughest jobs in the NHL and not one that is likely to boost your popularity with fans. The job beat up Campbell with allegations of bias and public meltdowns on the radio in the last year alone. Shanahan can avoid a similar fate though by doing the following three things.
Don’t do the job alone
Shanahan’s first priority should be to find two or three other people who he can form a discipline committee with. By making discipline decisions as a group it will deflect some of the criticism away from Shanahan personally and will help avoid any personal biases that might exist within the group. Shanahan is the man in charge so if the group can’t make a decision he can have the final say but this way the decision doesn’t always have to rest solely on him.
So who should be on the discipline committee? An ex player, coach, general manager, or referee would all by fine additions to the committee. And change them every couple of years as well. Thanks to technology location doesn’t matter, when an incident needs to reviewed have a conference call, discuss the incident, and come to a conclusion. It’s simple and it’s effective.
Accept that there’s an issue and take the offensive
Like it or not, the NHL has a public relations problem when it comes to on-ice actions right now. Think back over the last season and try to count up the number of borderline and questionable plays you saw. The suspensions/fines don’t seem to be working as much of a deterrent since we see the same actions game after game. More often than not the media coverage the NHL receiving is not flattering. For the long term health of the league (and its players) this needs to change.
The discipline system needs a complete overhaul and the model to follow was laid out by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when he handled his own public relations problem in 2007. At the time a number of off-field incidents were casting the league in an ugly light so Goodell simply instituted a new personal conduct policy that saw the penalties imposed for off-field incidents jump significantly. Has this eliminated all off-field problems? Of course not but it has greatly reduced the number.
Shanahan and the NHL can do the same thing starting this season. They need to take the lead here by making it clear that there is a new sheriff in town and what happened in the past is in the past. What might have been a one game suspension last season will now be four for example. Make the suspensions big (i'd make almost anything worthy of a suspension three or four games at a minimum) and if a player repeats the offense double the suspension. If, for example, hits to the head are something you want taken out of the game it’ll need to be made very clear that they will not be accepted, until that happens nothing will change.
And even before the first suspension is handed down get out and control the story. Explain that the new system has been put in place for the benefit of everyone involved because that is exactly who benefits. It protects the investment the owners have made in the players, it protects the long term health of the players, and it makes sure that the fans will get to see the best product possible when they come to a game. If (when) the NHLPA complains point to the obvious conflict of interest they’re in by representing the players on both side of the incident. Be the only person in the system willing to look out for the health of the players. Be the good guy.
Quit long before the 2023/24 season
Colin Campbell held the position of head of NHL discipline for 13 seasons but the job should be a short term position only. Realistically anything longer than five years is probably too much. The game changes quickly and as it changes how discipline is handled has to change too. But the longer a person has been in this position the harder it becomes to reinvent the system. In a lot of ways they are too close to the problem to even see that there is a problem. It’s not easy to adapt and Campbell’s inability to do just that was a big part of his downfall.
As I said earlier, the job Shanahan is taking is not an easy one but it is a necessary one and I congratulate him for being willing to take it on. If he decides to follow my advice I think he will do one hell of a job.