The NHL Leads the Way

10 03 2012

I never thought accountability or transparency would be words I’d use to describe how and why the National Hockey League is suddenly so successfully policing its own ranks, but there it is.

In only his first few months in office as the NHL’s Senior VP of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, former player Brendan Shanahan has done one of the best jobs I’ve seen by an executive in any public setting. Sure, some of his success has to do with following on the heels of anemic and ham-fisted “discipline czar” Colin Campbell. But the differences between the two and their styles could not be more staggering, and I could not be any more impressed with Shanahan and his lieutenants Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal.

The three other major sports leagues should take notice and learn some real lessons from the NHL on this. Further, all companies, public and private, big and small, could stand to do the same.

Under Shanahan — among other things — punishable on-ice acts are now reviewed (first independently, by him and his small cadre of associates, then discussed, and a consensus reached) and a decision is made regarding further disciplinary action. Standard operating procedure. But then the video decision/evidence is posted on NHL.com for all to see. And Shanahan (or at least his Twitter account) sends a pointer to said video.

Simple, transparent, fair. Both the season and Shanahan’s tenure are still young, so we’ll see how well this all works as a deterrent over the long haul. But, it would seem that suspensions without pay are still the most effective means of keeping headhunting and unnecessary thuggery at bay, thereby keeping players safer. And increasing player safety (not simply discipline) as Shanahan’s new title implies, should indeed be the core competency of the position.

Say what you like about fighting in the NHL, it’s old news; what has fans, players, the media talking now is the irrefutable fact that hockey, like football, has a concussion problem. And it’s not going to solve itself.

In the NHL, the problem is three-fold:

  • The players are bigger, stronger, faster.
  • Their “padding” is now made of hard plastic, and feels like armor when you get hit with it.
  • Recent rule changes (like doing away with the red line) instituted to usher out the “dead-puck era” of boring, defensive, trapping teams has had the unintended consequence of creating more possibilities of high-velocity open-ice hits, as players zip across the ice for stretch passes.

Enter Shanahan. His role is one that others have held, all with varying degrees of minimal effectiveness. But no one of Shanahan’s stature has ever taken on the job, and no one — it would seem — has embraced it as seriously or successfully.

Among any new executive’s first decisions, whom to hire is often the most important. And in hiring Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal, Shanahan made some very astute choices. Among them, Shanny, Blake, and Quintal have roughly 4,200 total games of NHL experience — not to mention nearly 6,000 penalty minutes. So they’ve been there, seen, and done nearly everything that comes across their desks.

One mark of a good executive is the ability to adapt techniques from industries outside their own. In this regard, Shanahan and company have seemingly taken a page from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show playbook, where we have all seen precisely how effective and skewering a well indexed video library can be. The NHL’s concise and informative suspension videos are must-see viewing for not just hockey fans, players, coaches, and referees, but for judges, leaders, and corporate executives as well. Take, for example, the following:

Kaleta suspension video

Shanahan himself speaks, emotionless and objective, delivering the key information, the evidence, history (past transgressions/suspensions), end result (was the affected player injured), and his decision. In this era of constant buck-passing, Shanahan’s openness is not just refreshing, it’s remarkable and admirable. And his office — and the NHL — is making the right calls on these infractions. They are actually making the game both better and safer.

I am not a Shanny fan-boy. He was an excitable, emotional player; I hated him early on with the Devils, was indifferent to him on the Blues, but by the time he moved onto the Red Wings, I had to respect the guy and what he continued to do each season. Nor have I ever been a big supporter of the league offices. NHL commish Gary Bettman is basically Bud Selig in David Stern‘s clothing.

But as a middle-aged guy myself, what I have been most impressed with is this guy’s ability to go from an incredibly gifted and determined player with a distinguished career (he ranks 12th or 13th overall in goals scored and 25th overall in total points, and won three Stanley Cups) to an exceptional off-ice executive (same industry, but still) in just a few short years (he last played in the 2008–09 season).

No one is really writing about this yet. But they should. This is how pro sports leagues should operate. Players — not just star players — should not only be revered and marketed, but protected. Not simply by their unions during contract negotiations, but during the season, by their teams, and by the league itself.

And it is precisely this sort of transparency and accountability that the other sports leagues need most right now. Picture baseball dealing with steroids in a similar manner. Or professional cycling cleaning up its doping act. We might actually lose the bulked-up automatons and the cynicism they engender. And we fans might actually care again.

Well done, Shanny. Keep it up.

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