Shanahan ready to come down hard on NHL head shots
The most visible man during the NHL preseason has been Brendan Shanahan and not Sidney Crosby, a revealing fact about what holds the hockey world's attention going into the 2011-12 season: hits to the head.
While Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins star and arguably the league's top player, works on his recovery from a concussion caused by a pair of hits last season, Shanahan has been doling out startling suspensions for blows to the head since the preseason opened Sept. 19.
And Shanahan, a former player who served five suspensions during a 21-year career, has a novel way of announcing the bans - appearing on videos in which he explains in detail, with replays of the hit, why it deserved extra punishment.
During this preseason, hardly a day went by without a new video. Most players applauded the crackdown but others worried it may turn NHL hockey into no-hit shinny.
Nine players have been slapped with 31 regular season games worth of suspensions for incidents in exhibition games. Together, they will forfeit more than $701,000 in salary.
''Change is always hard, but what we want is for the number of head injuries to come down,'' said Shanahan, who was named by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to a new position as senior vice president of player safety.
Shanahan took over as the league's disciplinarian from the much-maligned Colin Campbell.
The only significant offseason rule change was the broadening of Rule 48 on head blows. Previously, calls were made only for blindside or lateral hits to the head. This season, they cover all hits in which ''the head is the principal point of contact.''
The league's general managers recommended the change amid a clamorous debate over head shots - like the shoulder to the jaw Washington's Dave Steckel unleashed that ended Crosby's season during the Winter Classic outdoor game in January. Crosby looks to be recovering, but won't be ready for the Penguins' regular-season opener.
Other players, including Boston center Marc Savard, have suffered more serious concussions from head shots.
''I think he's sending a clear message that hits to the head and illegal blows aren't going to be tolerated,'' said Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges. ''If guys haven't realized that by now it's their own fault.
''It's something we as players have to recognize. It's a good move and hopefully it will save some guys from serious injuries.''
Crosby also joined in the call to ban head shots, even if only 50 of 50,000 hits in hockey last season were to the head.
''Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you've got to be responsible out there,'' said Crosby. ''At the end of the day, you can do a lot more good than what it's going to take away from the game.''
Shanahan said he is just doing what the league's governors and general managers wanted by handing out stiffer suspensions. He said the videos were Bettman's idea.
''Players and fans and GMs still won't necessarily agree with the decisions, but it explains them in better detail,'' said Shanahan.
While head hits have gone from an automatic major penalty to a minor and possible match penalty, the supplemental discipline - suspensions - have risen dramatically.
Philadelphia's Jody Shelley, Anaheim's Jean-Francois Jacques and Detroit's Brendan Smith each got five games, Brad Staubitz of the Wild got three, Toronto's Clarke MacArthur and Philadelphia's Tom Sestito got two and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond of Calgary got one.
All also missed games in the preseason, as did first-time offender Brad Boyes of Buffalo.
While Shanahan looked like a hanging judge through the first two weeks of the exhibition season, not every head hit gets hammered.
The rule allows hits when the victim puts himself in a vulnerable position, as Montreal's Chris Campoli learned after he was flattened by Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone.
Shanahan called it his most challenging decision thus far, but ruled no suspension because Malone had already committed to the hit and Campoli leaned forward and left himself vulnerable.
Terry Gregson, the NHL's director of officiating, said officials will call the hits as they see them, but the main punishment for severe cases will come from the league.
''Illegal checks to the head are something we want to take out of the game, so if you see it, you have to react to it,'' said Gregson. ''But once you've done that, it's in the hands of supplementary discipline and they have the opportunity to do video replay.
''Our guys are the only people that judge this in real time. The media and everyone else judges it in video time.''