Hypocrisy, Headshots, and Hockey

A hypocrite is defined as ‘a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.’ The term has been around for a long, long time. It comes from the Greek word hypokrisis, which translates as ‘playing a part on stage.’ The origin of the Shanahan name is Irish, and it loosely translates as ‘wise or clever.’ For the past few years, the fans and media have been duped into believing that the NHL was serious about removing dangerous headshots from the game. We could use some of Shanahan’s wisdom to explain why the status quo of inconsistent and hypocritical punishments has returned.

When Shanahan took over the position of chief player disciplinarian from Colin Campbell in 2011, change was promised (sound familiar?). Shanahan, the respected former player, had managed to become one of the most impactful voices in the hockey world. He spearheaded the Shanahan Summit, a two-day meeting during the 2004-05 lockout featuring players, managers, and coaches, with hopes of improving the quality of the on ice product. The Summit “became the foundation for rule changes coming out of the lockout designed to eliminate obstruction.”

In 2009, Shanahan was named as VP of Hockey and Business Development for the NHL. He learned from the likes of Bill Daly, Gary Bettman, and the NHL’s brilliant COO, John Collins. He spent two years in that role before taking over for Campbell. Shanahan brought transparency to the role, and he was supposed to bring consistency and integrity, as well. What happened?

If the 2000’s were the ‘Steroid Era’ in sports, then the 2010’s will be the ‘Concussion Era.’ Even with the advancements made in medicine and science, so little is known about what causes concussions, why some are worse than others, why people are impacted differently, and most importantly, what the long term ramifications are. The tragic deaths of Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard, specifically, brought the issue to the forefront. Boogaard was only 27 when he died, but doctors discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E) in his brain posthumously, and predicted he would have descended into middle-age dementia if he had lived on.

The issue dominated the airwaves for much of the summer and early season, but time has a way of sweeping things under the rug, unfortunately.

For more on the tragic Boogaard saga, I’d highly recommend this piece from the New York Times last summer.

Shanahan was a marked difference from the soft-spoken Campbell. When announcing each suspension, he produced a concurrent video explaining why a particular judgment had been handed down. This removed the randomness that many had felt Campbell used with his suspensions (a Wheel of Fortune-like ‘wheel of justice’ was jokingly referred to as Campbell’s way of determining suspension length).

However, over the course of the 2011-12 regular season and postseason, the inconsistent suspensions returned.  Star players in all sports have always played under a different set of rules – we may hear otherwise from these leagues and players, but preferential treatment is as common today as it was 30 years ago. Nothing for Shea Weber, who used Henrik Zetterberg’s head like he was preparing it for an omelette. Nothing for Evgeni Malkin, who was throwing late, targeted headshots against the likes of Sean Couturier and Nicklas Grossman of the Flyers.

In Shanahan’s first five suspensions, he handed out a total of 22 regular season games worth of suspension time. In the last five suspensions he handed down in the regular season, the total punishment was 12 games.

For a complete list of Shanahan’s suspensions, click here.

Obviously a lot of other factors come in to play (who the offenders were, and what they actually did, to name two), but these small sample sizes perfectly highlight the declining seriousness of the suspensions. Did Shanahan change his tune? Did he succumb to external forces? The NHL (owners) may say they want to remove headshots, but when it comes to them losing a star player for a few games, the dollar signs start to scream loudly. The NHLPA may say they want to get rid of headshots too, but when their star players are forfeiting a significant portion of their salary, their tune may change as well.

From an Eric Duhatschek piece for the Globe & Mail back in April:

“The sad truth is that while better protecting players is a nice goal in theory, not enough of the movers and shakers in the NHL want to do it at the expense of fundamentally changing the game, which is what it’s going to take to make it happen.”

As I alluded to earlier, concussions are going to be the focal issue in sports for the next decade. There is already a class-action lawsuit against the NFL from a collection of former players right now, and if that ends up in disaster for the NFL, a similar scenario in other professional sports won’t be far behind.

“Former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that seeks compensation and medical care from the NFL for “repeated traumatic injuries to his head” that he incurred during his playing career.

In the suit, which was filed March 23 in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Rypien — along with 126 other former professional football players — allege that the NFL was aware of the dangers and risks of “repetitive traumatic brain injuries and concussions for decades, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed” the information, court documents say.”

The NHL appears unwilling to make any fundamental changes to the game, and at this point, it appears that they may have to before it is too late. Theoretically, what could be done to rectify the situation? Following these four points would be a great start:

1) C is for consistency

It shouldn’t matter if it is Evgeni Malkin or Byron Bitz throwing a dangerous headshot. It does, however, and there may be nothing Shanahan can do about avoiding serious suspensions to stars (pressure from owners, his boss, and other powerful parties likely provide the interference). However, if he wants to have any credibility (and the same goes for the NHL as a professional organization), more consistency is the most important requirement.

Malkin is just an example, but he is a good one. He has been skating around throwing dangerous headshots for the past few seasons, completely unpunished. How is he supposed to learn if nothing happens? He knocked Willie Mitchell out for a few months with a concussion a few years ago. Luckily Grossman only missed a few games, while Couturier was OK after the hit Malkin threw on him.

Roger Goodell had no problem suspending New Orleans Saints star Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 regular season for his part in Bounty-Gate. I shudder to think what would have happened if something similar had occurred in the NHL.

As this article points out, maybe this talk of getting serious over headshots has been all smoke and mirrors?

Memo to the NHL, its players, officials et al: Please stop feeding us propaganda about how vital it is to get head shots out of the game, because we are no longer buying it — if we ever really did.

The games we have seen in the first-round playoff series so far have been fraught with gross dereliction of any notion that this is considered a problem.

Players have to respect players, it’s a problem that needs to be solved by the players, we’re told.”

Shanahan may be more of a flow-chart guy than a wheel guy, after all.

2) Lessen the focus on outcome

Two identical hits are thrown – in one instance; the player on the receiving end of the hit sustains a serious head injury and is stretchered off. In the other instance, the player receiving the hit bounces back up and doesn’t even miss a shift. Should there be different lengths of punishment handed down?

If Shea Weber’s attempted facial reorganization on Henrik Zetterberg resulted in more than just a cracked helmet, would he have gotten off scot free? What is the message there? You can smash a player’s head into the glass as long as he isn’t injured? What if Zetterberg had sustained a serious concussion? He’s a premier player, and the league did absolutely nothing to protect him (or at least deter a similar incident from happening in the future).

Ben Eager has a long track record, and Daniel Sedin is a star player. If Sedin didn’t get up right away, does Eager escape with only a two minute minor penalty?

Would Raffi Torres had received 25 games had Marian Hossa not been stretchered off? Maybe, maybe not. The NHL is forcing Torres to change his game, something they were able to do with Matt Cooke.

“”I think now I’ve taken it so far that now I think that there’s times when I’m watching tape, oh, I could have hit there, I was fine to hit there,” Cooke admitted. “I’m erring on the cautious side and I don’t beat myself up about it, but I think that there’s times when I could be a bit more physical and it’s still going to be OK.”

The Torres suspension isn’t a measuring stick for future suspensions, and it isn’t a starting point for a stiff crackdown on late headshots. It is a message from the league to Torres – change your game, or find a new league to play in. Obviously the outcome has to factor in to the equation to a degree, but the league is putting too much emphasis on avoiding punishment in cases where the player hit avoids injury.

3) More transparency

The videos produced by Shanahan explaining his suspensions are a fantastic start. They provide a look at his thought process when analyzing a hit and coming up with a number for a suspension. However, his authority seems to have been sapped over the past eight months. Just as he organized during the lockout, perhaps he needs to set up a ‘Shanahan Summit’ this summer, with key people from the league, NHLPA, officials, and the media. Put all of the cards on the table. If the league and players want to keep the status quo, then so be it (and get ready for the lawsuits).

4) Less room for interpretation

A headshot from a first-time offender? 10 games. A repeat offender? 15 games. A multiple repeat offender? 20+ games. Players don’t take a one or two game suspension seriously. And to those who say that hockey is too fast of a sport for players to change, I’ll bring up Matt Cooke again. If he can change the way he plays hockey, anyone can.

Just to prove that my European history classes weren’t totally useless…. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, hypocrites are confined to the eighth circle of hell, in between embezzlers and thieves. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Not only that, but they are forced to dress in cloaks made of lead. I can’t imagine one would be able to accomplish a whole lot in that sort of situation.

The NFL, as usual, is at the forefront of the movement to remove headshots. Roger Goodell gets criticized for his ego, but you can’t question his desire to clean up the sport he runs, regardless of who feels his wrath. When Shanahan took power last summer, change was promised. It was delivered too, for a short while. With the status quo of inconsistent and insufficient suspensions returning, it is only a matter of time before the NHL has a lawsuit on their hands.

And don’t even get me started on the quiet room.