By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The greatest trick the NHL ever played was convincing the sports world that it cared about player safety.
The league did so by sending Brendan Shanahan out to be the face of a “new era,” and the Shanahammer of Justice swung mightily against all who dared to deliver dangerous, illegal hits … in the preseason.
It was during the preseason of the 2011-12 season when Shanahan earned a reputation of coming down hard on players, as he doled out a whopping nine suspensions that totaled 60 games lost. Yes, roughly half of those were preseason games lost, but the message was clear: no more dirty hits.
It was much-needed, too, after Colin Campbell’s office somehow failed to find any reason to suspend Matt Cooke for what was, for all intents and purposes, a career-ending cheap shot on Marc Savard. The league needed to create the appearance of having a reliable, straightforward process that would eliminate such oversights. (Saying there was no reason on the books to suspend Cooke was, flatly, incorrect. But we need not open that book at this moment in time.)
Add in Shanahan’s well-produced, simple explanatory videos for each ruling, and the reputation was set.
Granted, once the regular season began, those massive 10- and 12-game suspensions were no more. Most were for two or three games. Some players — like Raffi Torres — earned some hefty punishment, but what happened in the years following was a system that was not altogether unlike the one run by Campbell. That is, it was an inconsistent process, one without defined rules, one that overlooked what appeared to be blatant violations on a regular basis while punishing other hits that would generally be considered borderline, and one that nobody in the world could properly predict.
But they still had those explanatory videos. And the facade of caring about player safety persisted, even as Gary Bettman and his crew fought hard behind the scenes to downplay any potential link of his sport to brain damage. Shanahan left the job, which was taken over by Stephane Quintal. This year marks the first season of former enforcer George Parros running the show.
That was a very long-winded way of saying this: the NHL’s department of player safety is wildly inconsistent, and it always has been. They just have an A/V club intern who can put together some two-minute videos in a somewhat-timely fashion.
So when David Backes was issued a three-game suspension for a hit on Frans Nielsen that was obviously very late but wasn’t necessarily “dirty,” it was surprising but not at all shocking. Yes, that was Backes’ 903rd NHL game (including playoffs), and no, he had never been fined or suspended for anything before. And yes, the NHL department of player safety is supposed to weigh a player’s history when making a decision. Oh, and also, yes, countless players have avoided fines and suspensions for similar hits that just didn’t quite have the same bad result of an injury.
This is the point of the whole charade where you’re supposed itemize all the other hits that were similar but didn’t result in suspensions. You can point to Patric Hornqvist nailing Charlie McAvoy in the face just last week in the same building, or Nick Ritchie delivering a late, high, blind-side hit on Backes in almost the same exact spot on the Garden ice where Backes hit Nielsen. And that would just be looking at incidents that took place in one building over the past two months.
But that’s sort of what the NHL wants. Somehow, the league has managed to commodify dirty and dangerous hits. It’s essentially good for business whenever people rant and rave about whatever the decision might be. The suspension is too short, or too long, and here are 57 video examples to prove my point. You can spend your whole life scanning the internet and finding thousands of blogs and columns that argue those points with great passion. The injustice of it all!
There’s no doubt that Backes’ hit on Nielsen was very late and very unnecessary. It was not part of the play. It was very weird and uncharacteristic. The fact that he got suspended isn’t necessarily a point of outrage, but a three-game ban for a first-time offender is a bit of a stretch. (You could point out that when Backes was concussed on a similar hit in 2016, the offending player was not suspended, but again, that would mean that you’re playing into the game that the NHL likes you to play.)
From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to make sense of the process at play when the league decides on such matters. But it doesn’t really affect us, now does it?
If you’re a player, though, and you’re trying to navigate the seas of understanding what will get ignored by the department of player safety and what will inspire a fairly significant suspension? Good luck to you. The system is just as erratic and unreliable as it’s ever been.