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How Brendan Shanahan Can Avoid Failure as NHL Head of Discipline

I don't want to feel bad for this guy's new job, but unless he makes some changes, I have no choice. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
I don't want to feel bad for this guy's new job, but unless he makes some changes, I have no choice. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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I feel bad for former New Jersey Devils winger Brendan Shanahan.  That's an admittedly strange feeling to have for someone who's had a long, successful career doing something they love.  However, it's what keeps popping up when I realize that Shanahan will be the NHL's Head of Discipline.  The move was announced way back in June, so it's not really news; but I still have sympathy for what his new job will entail.

First, it's because he's following Colin Campbell, who has served in this position for 13 years.  He deservedly does not look good in the eyes of many hockey fans.  His judgments were sadly best described as a Wheel of Discipline.  Some incidents were punished appropriately, while other similar incidents would get less or more severe judgments with little reason explaining the decision process.  If it made sense to Campbell, he surely didn't explain it well to media, fans, NHL players, or team executives.  His perceived credibility seemingly declined with every decision. On top of that, Tyler Dellow discovered evidence suggesting that Campbell's reign was certainly biased - further cementing his lack of credibility.  When Scott Burnside properly argues the resignation was a good idea, it's a big sign that Campbell really needed to step down. That's hard for Shanahan since he's following someone who - from my standpoint - did a poor job in terms of disciplining players.  Anything he tries to learn from the previous regime could very well backfire on him.

Second, Shanahan being hired can certainly be seen as just another example of the "Old Boys Network" working in the league.  Please read Derek Zona's post about how NHL and team management has been a closed loop for the most part at Copper & Blue. Now that you have, ask yourself: Why else would Shanahan have been working in the NHL other than that he's been a player for so long?  I'm not saying he's unqualified (Does being VP of Hockey and Business Development really help out in a disciplinary function?) or he can't learn to do this job (though given that Campbell was the predecessor, that may be more difficult).  What I am saying is that he's a "hockey guy" hired by other "hockey guys" to punish "hockey guys."  This perception is real and it hurts his credibility before he has had the chance to do anything. That may be fine in other positions, but it can undermine his authority or his judgment as a punisher of said "hockey guys" in his new job. 

Between these two points, the challenge of disciplining players for violating the rules only becomes more difficult.  And plenty of attention will be paid to how Shanahan does this job.  He will be compared to Campbell - unfavorably or otherwise - when he makes a decision.  I feel bad for him.

However, I write this not to pity the former Devil; but as a springboard to help him out.  I think there are at least three sensible (and hopefully possible) suggestions he can implement to improve league discipline, separate himself from the previous Head of Discipline, and avoid totally failing in his new job.

The first suggestion for Shanahan is to hire someone outside of hockey in an advisory.  The biggest concern from the Campbell was his credibility. Between the seemingly random lengths and fines for various incidents and the e-mails Dellow found all can suggest that he played favorites to a point.  Shanahan must avoid the same and the easiest way to do so is to bring in someone outside of the game who understands disciplining personnel and can interpret and define regulations. This could be someone from the aerospace field, law, automotive businesses, or wherever. It just needs be someone who doesn't know the players or the team personnel personally and won't be biased for or against them.   While the decisions may be up to Shanahan, the advisor can look at an incident with lesser bias for the player, compare it to the current rules in place, and at least offer their recommendation to Shanahan.  This would certainly help his decision making.

An advisor - or a group of them - would be very beneficial for this second suggestion: establishing a framework of discipline.  The NHL rulebook does bring up suspensions for multiple violations of certain rules such as Rule 48 for illegal checks to the head.  However, Rule 28 for supplementary discipline, which I presume means any discipline for Shanahan to decide, is unfortunately general and somewhat vague.  Section 18.3 and 18.4 of the CBA goes into some detail about the disciplinary process; but there's little in the CBA about determining length outside of performance enhancing substances (Section 47.7). Unless there's something else I'm missing, there's no formal framework among the league's rulebook or CBA that spells out supplemental penalties - just the process and how it's carried out. No wonder Campbell's rulings seemed so random.  There was nothing requiring him to stay consistent.

This is something Shanahan can take care of, at least within the league.  It doesn't have to be perfect, but he can create a recorded framework that spells out what the minimum penalties are for a player who commits an act that requires supplemental discipline.  For example, if someone violates Rule 48 and requires supplemental discipline, a minimum penalty could be in place as to ensure there's some cost to the player and/or team.  Should the incident be seen as more severe upon review, the punishment can be increased as decided upon. This would create a system of what punishments are at hand should someone get called for an "Attempt to Injure" or goes knee-on-knee or whatever else. This can be communicated more easily to every team and player in the league such that there's little doubt over what will happen should someone "cross the line." This will make assigning discipline easier as Shanahan would have something to work from to come to more consistent decisions regardless of the player, team, or result (e.g. injury) involved.  Effectively, it's no longer a "Wheel of Discipline" but an actual system of discipline.

The best part about such a system is that it can be improved.  Surely, there will be outcry over a violent incident that isn't punished harshly enough.  Instead of just assuring people that things will be different, the framework can be updated accordingly.  It can even be a point of public announcement: "In light of this incident, it's agreed that committing X will carry a minimum suspension of Y games."   Should there be a common finding among review, then harsher penalties can be linked to certain thresholds.  Those can change as needed as well.  If there's one major fault from Campbell's position is that it didn't seem there was a system in place. Shanahan can rectify that by putting one in.  Having advisors to help develop clear guidelines or provide additional perspectives on certain incidents would only benefit the creation of such a system.

This leads to a third suggestion: review past incidents that required supplementary discipline.  Perhaps Shanahan has done this or perhaps he's not able to do this so far (but maybe some advisors can), but it's to his advantage to review what Campbell had to look at. This will only prepare him for what to expect but given his new job, he can look at it from the league's perspective.  It's this sort of review that will allow him to realize what Campbell did right, what he did wrong, and what to learn from each situation. In absence of a system, this will prepare him best for what to expect in 2011-12. Of course, this should not be done in place of establishing a system. This would be beneficial, if not necessary, for the process inputting together an actual system of discipline as well. 

I fully admit that these may be untenable suggestions.  Perhaps Shanahan is not in a position to hire personnel for his job. The union or someone else in the league could have a problem with developing a system for supplementary discipline outside of the rules and the CBA.  There could be all sorts of other obstacles.  Still, it's on Shanahan to at least try to pick up the pieces from the mess Campbell left behind.  I feel these three suggestions would help him out greatly to do just that while strengthening league discipline by way of consistency and clarity.    

I now turn to you, the reader.  Do you think these three suggestions would help him out? What other suggestions would you make for Shanahan given his new role in league discipline?  Please leave your answers and other relevant thoughts on this matter in the comments. Thank you for reading.