Hall call not all for NHL's Shanahan
NEW YORK — Immortality is calling Brendan Shanahan.
He will not let that get in the way of his mission, though.
Shanahan will join the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night, and only one thing could keep the evening from going perfectly.
“They gave me a break by scheduling only one game,” Shanahan said smiling from a corner office on the 15th floor of the NHL's Manhattan headquarters Thursday afternoon.
Tampa Bay at Boston is the only game scheduled for Monday night, but even induction into the Hall of Fame will not permit Shanahan — or members of the Department of Player Safety staff he would rather be with him in Toronto — a night off.
If a play requires his attention during the ceremony, Shanahan will open his electronic tablet and give it a look. He already will have talked it over with the Player Safety staff by the time his critics are guessing his potential response.
Player Safety, the NHL's disciplinary arm that is as thorough as it is unpopular with those who view the game as necessarily punishing, reviews every hit.
Shanahan's plan for hockey is for a slow but hard turn toward “big changes.”
“The next generation of players is going to have grown up with a thorough understanding and foundation of these thoughts about how to play the game safely, responsibly,” he said. “There will be a new standard.”
Repetition of reviewing video is the daily life for Shanahan in his third season as vice president of player safety and hockey operations, and it has proven equally taxing as his 21 years as a player. Then, he prepared for an 82-game season. Now, he reaches that total by any regular Friday.
“The first thing he did was explain to me that I'd be on call every night,” said Brian Leetch, who joined Player Safety this season. “And that meant being ready to offer my opinion every night on something that people probably wouldn't agree on.
“It's interesting because I asked him before I said yes, ‘Do you like this job?' I needed to know the answer before I committed.”
Shanahan answered yes, and it did not surprise Leetch that it was accompanied by an explanation.
Shanahan has become good at explaining himself. He has filmed about 100 videos to explain rulings on supplemental discipline for players who have crossed the line between hard and dangerous play, including 17 suspensions this season.
“We're in the middle of a cultural change,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “There are (blindside) hits in the game that now are illegal that three years ago weren't illegal.
“We have an average of about 55,000 hits, and it's down to a relatively small fraction of a percentage that we have problems with, and I think Brendan and his department do a good job of dealing with it when the line's crossed of educating players of what's expected.”
Though about to be honored for a playing career during which he scored 656 goals and registered 2,489 penalty minutes, Shanahan the executive has not won popularity contests among current players, general managers or even owners.
Players especially are unforgiving because he was one of them, several Penguins hypothesized.
“I'd like this game to be played closer to the way he played it, to be honest,” winger Tanner Glass said, noting Shanahan's reputation as a tough player willing — perhaps eager — to cross the line he now guards.
“I'm sick of referees yelling, ‘Ease up!' when I'm on the forecheck. To me, that's (unnecessary) when I'm not trying to hurt somebody. I don't want for hockey to become an ease-up game.
“But that's what's happening. It's what the general managers are mandating. They make the rules. So for Shanny, and whoever he has with him, it doesn't matter what type of players they were.”
Type matters to Shanahan.
He sought out Leetch (Hall of Fame Class 2009) not because they are friends but rather because Leetch's style was gentlemanly — that of a thinking man.
“The way Brian played had a huge influence on me,” Shanahan said, referring to his asking Leetch to replace Rob Blake, another former standout defenseman who left Player Safety to become assistant general manager with Los Angeles.
“The level of understanding from a guy like Brian is deeper than the average hockey player. He's a cerebral guy. We all have our specific backgrounds, our styles we played, and it's good for this department to have guys with differences in those areas.”
Shanahan recently spoke to a general manager whose defense of a player during a supplemental discipline hearing was built upon this question: “How else can my defenseman play?”
“Brian Leetch is part of this staff,” Shanahan said. “That brings a huge amount of credibility because Brian isn't looking to suspend anybody, and Brian can point out nuances of a play that are impossible to argue against.”
Leetch admitted he initially was taken aback by how he has watched hockey in the earliest days of this assignment.
“You don't look at clips — not this way, over and over, from so many angles — as a player,” Leetch said. “The quantity of what those guys (inside the New York Player Safety video review room) look at before something gets to me is just … well, you just don't think of all the time and work that goes into it when you're playing. At least I didn't.”
Leetch also does not think about his long-term role with Player Safety.
He committed to one season but has not ruled out more, mostly because he believes in the cause that drives Shanahan.
Leetch does not view this as a stepping-stone for Shanahan, even though previous NHL chief disciplinarians (Brian Burke and Colin Campbell) also have served as general mangers and coaches.
“My read on Brendan is that he is playing the long game with this job, not unlike his career,” Leetch said. “To me, what made him a Hall of Famer was that he kept learning, kept applying and kept executing and kept challenging himself to become better.
“That's a good approach to have all the time, especially when Brendan's outlook with this job is that he wants to have played a significant role in changing this game to a style that is safer for players.
“That's why he's doing this, I think. It's going to be his legacy as much as the Hall of Fame.”