Today, I’d like to talk about an issue that’s been a somewhat heated topic of many discussions during the past three days. Suspensions and enforcing discipline have becoming increasingly important talking points because todayâ€™s players have made significant progress in terms of their physical ability compared to their former counterparts. The conditioning has never been better, the speed with which the game is played today is unparalleled by any former era of puck chasing. The equipment is better suited for protecting the player wearing it, but as a byproduct it has also become a devastating weapon for inflicting serious bodily harm on your fellow player.
All of the above (plus additional variables) contributed to discipline being one the most talked about points during last year. The Colin Campbell era as chief NHL disciplinarian will mostly be remembered for the lack of consistency in his rulings. This writer is of the opinion that Campbell indeed tried to be fair and just, but his â€œold schoolâ€ attitude (which can be read from some of his rulings and dealings with the press) caused him to bow down to the stereotypes that plagued this game for decades. I also donâ€™t think he didnâ€™t try to be progressive, but I guess being progressive isnâ€™t as easy when youâ€™re part of the old guard.
Brendan Shanahan has a chance to make things right again. He has a chance to make suspensions less of a talking point, and more of an accepted (by players, fans and media), unspectacular part of the modern game by a) showing consistency in the rulings, b) applying those rulings to top six players and superstars, although I suppose that would make for a public spectacle more than anything else. However, Iâ€™d argue that although setting a precedent by sentencing say Alexander Ovechkin as a repeat offender to ten games would indeed create a storm of epic proportions, it would only do so for the first couple of instances. Later on, the hockey public, media and the players themselves would think of it as normal consequence.
Oh, to be treated equally. That was the goal of many in our history, not just hockey players. We all like to pretend all players are equal. Fact is, they are not. Simple example comes to mind. Iâ€™ll continue talking Ovechkin, so please allow this mild disclaimer. I have nothing against the guy, love watching him play, I could be talking about Mike Richards or any other superstar player with a recorded history of questionable hits. But I digress. My example is Matt Bradley jumping into a fight for Ovechkin. Why? Simply put, the text â€“ heâ€™s playing a different role â€“ might as well read â€“ he is worth less. Not as a person (although when you have to put your body on the line for another guy how does that not devaluate your self esteem, even if you accept that role), but as a hockey player.
When we accept the difference in value, and weâ€™re are forced to do just that, not only by watching their skillset, or learning their pay grade but deep down, in our minds, as well as logically, for that specific task (playing hockey) that top six player is indeed worth more. Why else would he automatically conclude, without knowing their pay grade, that Drew Doughty deserves more money than James Wisniewski? But does that worth give him a get out of jail free card? As far as ethics goes, it shouldnâ€™t. Then again, this is the real world. And in the real world there are far more repercussions for suspending a star player than just complaints from angry fans or commendations from a moralist majority.
When all that is taken into account, Shanahan (as well as Campbell) has lots to consider. What impact would suspending Ovechkin for say 20 games (yeah Iâ€™m going a little overboard to prove a point) have on Washingtonâ€™s ratings? Would suspending Ovechkin devalue his market value to a point that he would be deemed unfit to serve as a figure for promoting the NHL (which is seemingly trying to go with a different, more enlightened route in terms of player to player ethics)?
Finally, if weâ€™re going to judge Shanahan based on what he does with star players, we really need to ask ourselves this question: Do we as fans have that mental block that doesnâ€™t allow us to deem star players dirty or unsportsmanlike? Do we as fans tend to tolerate it more when it comes from star players? Iâ€™d say yes, especially when that player is an icon on your team. My point is that every single one of us has that value tag hanging somewhere in our heads, and while mine was that playerâ€™s worth to my team, Campbellâ€™s or Shanahanâ€™s would possibly be based on assessing the playerâ€™s value to the league.
When everything is said and done, I do understand the ‘why’ behind the leniency with star players. However, my opinion is that player to player conduct and safety goes beyond market value, sentimental value, fan feelings or even the delusional dinosaur of playing hard nosed hockey (since there is a big difference between hard nosed and foul). I salute the explanations behind his recent suspensions as long as heâ€™s not playing hangman with â€œfringeâ€ players. Shanahan has always been a character player. I believe that he came in with a job to do, and the importance of that job precedes, well, everything. If his play was any indication, he wonâ€™t take any prisoners, regardless of name and number. Justice may be blind, but I do hope Shanahan isnâ€™t.