Brendan Shanahan has been a busy man of late. Just yesterday he dished out a three game suspension to St. Louis’ Chris Stewart for a hit on Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall. It’s the fifteenth suspension the new VP of Player Safety has dished out since the preseason. On one hand, Shanahan seems to be reining in what was one of the NHL’s biggest growing threats: the head shot. Last season shined a big spotlight on the dangers inherent to questionable checks, punctuated by the still ongoing concussion saga of Sidney Crosby, who is approaching an entire year of absence thanks to two hard head shots taken in January of this year. Still, this season’s string of suspensions hasn’t gone over well with every hockey fan, as noted by Shanahan’s new nickname: Shanaban, wielder of the Shanahammer.
Responses to Shanahan’s first few months on the job have been mixed, among both fans and players. Some see his firm rulings as admirable attempts to protect the players on the ice and crackdown on stupid, sloppy play. Others, however, fear his overzealousness runs the risk of deterring even clean contact and turning the sport into a milquetoast shadow of itself. Further fueling the public division is the fact that each suspension comes with an accompanying video explanation of the ruling. Personally, I appreciate the additional disclosure, but when you have a face to put along with any judicial ruling, it can fuel discontent, and to some he’s become the figure head of all that is wrong with the “new NHL” (well, beside the oft-reviled Gary Bettman). Don’t believe me? Check out the “Let’s Get Shanahammered” drinking game!
The biggest problem, however, is the near impossible task of trying to appear impartial in a field where each fan is already extremely biased towards and against certain teams and players. The recent decision not to suspend Milan Lucic after he made contact with an out of crease Ryan Miller has caused a particular uproar, and despite Shanahan’s explanation, many think there should have been a punishment. A meeting yesterday among GMs resulted in a thinly-veiled response to the hit affirming the need to protect goalies and likening their importance to that of quarterbacks in football. Among fans, whether you agree with the ruling may very well come down to whether you prefer Boston or Buffalo. I am too biased to make a call here myself.
In the end, though, I think Shanahan’s off to a good start as the new sheriff of the NHL. Sure, suspensions are no fun for anyone, but hockey has often had a perennial image problem as something of a blood sport (fueled by popular portrayals like the hysterical but in no way accurate movie Slap Shot). No one wants the sport gentrified too much, but that doesn’t mean the league need to take a laissez-faire approach to dangerous hits. So long as Shanahan continues to accompany his rulings with fair explanations and remains consistent, he’s nothing but an assett for the league. Plus, we need as many hockey-themed drinking games as we can get.