NEW YORK – As a player, Brendan Shanahan never backed down, and even in his post-athletic career, he’s got one of the toughest jobs in professional sports.
The NHL’s vice-president of hockey operations is best-known these days as the head of the league’s Department of Player Safety. It’s rare to see an article now about this 42-year-old IIHF Triple Gold Club member that doesn’t include terms like “sheriff”, “disciplinarian”, or “Shanaban”.
Previously, the left winger from Mimico, Ontario dished up one of the best blends of toughness and skill in NHL history en route to three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002) and 1,354 points in 1,524 career games – on top of Canadian victories at the 1991 Canada Cup, 1994 IIHF World Championship, and 2002 Olympics.
Today, he’s continuing to break ground at the NHL with his proactive, strict but fair approach toward reviewing and handling on-ice incidents that could require supplemental discipline. IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Shanahan by phone from NHL headquarters in New York.What motivated you to take your current job?
Well, I worked for the NHL for a season and a half before I took on this particular role back in June. I started in December 2009. As a player, I was always a union representative for my team. I enjoyed being involved in the business of hockey. I enjoyed fighting for our rights. Then, as I got toward the end of my career, I also got involved in the NHL’s Competition Committee. I always felt the need to not just play the game, hang ‘em up, and move on. I enjoyed giving something back to the game, and I felt that my experience on the Competition Committee and during the work stoppage in 2004, including that rules summit...these were good experiences. And to see work that we did off the ice turn into actual success on the ice, it just whetted my appetite. When my career was over, I wanted to do more for the game.Being in charge of league discipline makes you a lightning rod for criticism. Were you concerned about that coming in?
It’s definitely a hard job. I’d made a lot of friends and established a lot of goodwill from playing 21 seasons in the NHL, and also at the league in different positions. I understood this was a job where criticism is inherent. But in the end, I felt it would be cowardly to not take on an important role, a role where I really hoped to improve the safety of the game, simply because I would be subject to criticism from time to time. You had more than 100 penalty minutes in 17 out of your 21 NHL seasons. How does that affect your credibility in this job, compared to if you were, say, a three-time Lady Byng Trophy winner?
I can’t speak for the players in the league, but I do know that when I have a player in a hearing, in spite of the fact I’m expected to make a judgement on his actions, I don’t judge the player, because I’ve been in his shoes. I’ve been in his seat. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of league discipline as a player. And yet I knew, even on those days where I got disciplined and I probably deserved it – I didn’t think so at the time – but I also never woke up on any of those mornings and said, “Tonight I’m going to hit a guy over the head with my stick.” So I understand the passion involved in the game, the speed at which things happen, and the pressures of being a player that’s expected to play on the edge.
I was always a player where no coach ever wanted me to get suspended, but I was always reminded and expected to play with an edge. And when I didn’t, I was reminded that even if I’d scored a few goals, I had to take my game to that level. So I think when I come up with players, for whatever reason, that are facing me in a hearing, I try to keep in mind the realities of the game and how things evolve. I also remember at times doing things where, I would have to admit now, they were completely intentional. That doesn’t happen very often, where we face a player who we think intentionally went out and did something. But we look at everything. We look at as much evidence as we can to determine whether that’s a possibility.How many phone calls do you get from general managers who feel you were too harsh, too lenient, or perhaps even bang-on in your rulings?
I’ve really had very little influence one way or the other sent my way from general managers. For the most part, I’d say 95 percent of them just allow me to do my job. They accept that it’s something they’re not going to be happy with every day, but they move on with the message to their team that “we’re not excuse-makers, we deal with adversity all the time, and we just move on and stay focused.” So I’ve really received very little communication and direction from the GMs. They have a job to do and they understand I have a job to do.What prompted you to make the disciplinary process more transparent by offering your famous video explanations for suspensions on the NHL web site?
I think it was something that evolved in conversations with Gary Bettman. In the end, I think he felt that it suited this new age of communication. You’ve got to keep in mind that when Colin Campbell took the job 13 years ago, he wasn’t dealing with things like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Not every game was being televised. Not every fan had a laptop in their home. There weren’t a bunch of radio shows and TV shows dissecting every play that occurred on the ice from the home feed, the away feed, and the six different camera angles. Overall, what’s happened to hockey is a good thing. The game has evolved, and the appetite for information from fans and their ability to now communicate directly with players and reporters has improved. I think Gary Bettman’s belief was that this was a much-needed necessity.
When I do the videos, the other thing is, I understand that on any hearing there are two markets that have a very skewed perception of the video: the market that probably thinks the infraction was nothing, and the market that thinks the infraction should lead to a lifetime ban. But in the other 28 markets, I hope the players specifically see it as an opportunity and an education tool, and look at it with perspective. To me, as much as each video and each decision needs to be explained, I really see the videos as a teaching tool.Currently, you’re working with some well-known former NHLers like Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal in the Department of Player Safety. What is the process you go through when a potentially suspendable incident is presented to you?
I should mention that another guy who plays a major role in my department is Damian Echevarrieta. Damien was with Coley [Colin Campbell] for his entire time, and has been in hockey operations for 13 years now as well. Damien is my vice-president. He’s in the room every night, and has a mental library that no other person in the sport of hockey has for everything that’s occurred, whether it’s rule changes or a player’s history. Where the rest of us have to go and look on computers, Damien just sort of goes through the Rolodex in his head.
If I’m travelling these days, I don’t go anywhere without an iPad, so that I can view incidents. On most nights, even if I’m in the room and can view it right then and there, if we see a play, we clip it, and then we send it around to people in hockey operations and the Department of Player Safety: guys like Mike Murphy, Kris King, Kay Whitmore, Rob Blake, Stephane Quintal, Damien Echeverietta, and other people in the department. Everybody freely throws their opinion at me. I try not to influence anybody and allow them to make their own assessment. At the end of that night, when I’ve taken in as much information as I can, I make a determination on whether I’m going to have a hearing the next day.How do you go about determining the length of a suspension when merited?
Every decision on supplemental discipline has two parts to it. The first part is the trial and the second is the sentencing. Obviously, in the trial, when we look at the incident in the hearing, I’m trying to decide 100 percent whether this is a suspension. In Phase Two, that’s where we’ve decided there’s going to be a suspension, and now comes the sentencing. That’s where we apply questions like, “What is this player’s history? What is the injury that was involved? What are all the details of the play that are pertinent? Was there a history between the players? Was it early in the game, or was it the last minute of a blowout?” These are all the numerous nuances and details that would go into determining what the number of games is.Click here for the second part of the interview.