Safety bigger than harsher discipline

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- We can't even count the number of times we have taken Brendan Shanahan and his predecessor Colin Campbell to the proverbial woodshed for what we perceived as great shortcomings in their handling of league discipline.

Too soft.

Too inconsistent.

Like many fans, we thirsted for justice and vengeance for on-ice actions we felt were cowardly and reprehensible and were often left wanting more when that bloodlust wasn't satisfied.

But maybe our view of the job -- a thankless one if ever there was one -- was misguided.

Maybe, just maybe, we didn't quite get exactly what Brendan Shanahan's job really entails.

After listening to him summarize his report to the NHL's general managers at their annual spring meeting in Florida, maybe, just maybe, we have a better appreciation for what it is that Shanahan is doing.

Doesn't mean we're always going to agree with him -- come on, three games for Mike Green's tattooing of Tampa Bay rookie Brett Connolly's noggin? -- but we acknowledge that the landscape Shanahan oversees reaches far beyond simply carrying a big stick and using it with authority.

"I don't feel we are in the punishment business. I feel we're in the changing player behavior business," Shanahan told reporters covering the meetings.

Counting the nine suspensions handed down in preseason, Shanahan has delivered 38 suspensions and levied 30 fines this season, which is up about 50 percent over the number of suspensions handed out in 2005-06. Shanahan's rulings generate a lot of discussion and no small amount of criticism, but he insisted Monday that the punitive part of the job doesn't represent the entirety of his mandate as senior vice president of player safety.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

For instance, he has made it a habit to call players with warnings about how their style of play is approaching a level where it might lead to supplemental discipline.

"The warnings are really good two-way conversations," Shanahan said.

The long-time NHLer said he believes there has been a shift in the behavior of players as a whole. He introduced video for both the GMs and the media that showed instances of players who could have delivered hard hits to unsuspecting or vulnerable opponents and didn't.

"I do sort of take offense when people say players don't respect each other," Shanahan said.

Of course, those kinds of plays often go unnoticed by the casual fan. But when a player like Rene Bourque delivers a cheap shot to an unsuspecting player like Nicklas Backstrom, a hit that left the Capitals' star center concussed and unable to play since, it's easy to suggest that respect is at a low ebb.

Those are the kinds of hits that the league has to remain vigilant about chasing from the game. Would stiffer suspensions accelerate that process? Maybe. Or maybe exposing teams to fines or other sanctions, as proposed a year ago by Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux and commissioner Gary Bettman, would make a bigger difference. But the sense from GMs is that they believe the league is on the right track with its supplemental discipline and its connection to making the game safer.

"If you look at the concussion issue, this is a full contact sport. We are going to have concussions. We're never going to get it to zero. The game won't be worth watching if we get it to zero. What we want to do is take out the unnecessary ones, the senseless ones, which I think Brendan Shanahan is doing a good job of doing," Toronto GM Brian Burke said.

"I just sat and had lunch with Shanny," Detroit GM Ken Holland said. "I think he's doing a tremendous job. He hit hard earlier in the year with suspensions. Again, I think players have adjusted."

The GMs were given an update on the concussion issue Monday. While the man-games lost to concussions has gone up significantly, the actual number of concussions has remained constant from a year ago.

Given that there was a "drastic" increase in the number of concussions between 2009-10 and 2010-11, the fact the number has remained constant is seen as good news.

"There's been a leveling out," Kris King, vice president of hockey operations, said.

There are varying opinions on whether the lack of a decline in the number of concussions is problematic.

"There are doctors that think that the number being as high as it is is a good thing because we're actually diagnosing brain injuries correctly," King said. "At the same time, we'd love to see our numbers coming down because then the work we've put into this with the concussion working group and the protocol and the equipment changes and the rule changes, we'd like to think that that was helping keep our players healthy and back on the ice longer. I think we're too early to tell with the amount of work that we're doing.

"The fact that it stabilized after a huge increase from two years ago is a positive, I think."

The increase in the number of man-games lost to concussions is as much a function of the league's increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the health issues connected to concussions as the mayhem on the ice, many GMs believe.

"Part of that, I think, is now as we get further into this, people learning that you have to make sure you're properly healed," Chicago GM Stan Bowman said. "I don't know that it's indicative of anything other than maybe we're smarter than we were."

The number of concussions is up slightly from hits both legal and illegal and down slightly from accidents and fighting. Just more than 3 percent of all concussions are related to fights.

There is a sense among the GMs that, while they must remain vigilant on making the game safer, they may be close to reaching the point that only fundamental changes to the way the game is played will make it appreciably safer, and no one is prepared to go down that road.

"Without fundamentally changing it there's not much that you can do," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. "I mean, if you want to change the game to a no-contact sport, that may change it, but the game is what it is. It's a good game. I think we've made some changes that have helped make it safer for the players and we have to recognize that it's a contact sport and there's some pretty big hits laid."