Hall of Famers played in a different NHL

TORONTO -- As the members of the class of 2013 were handed their Hockey Hall of Fame induction rings Friday afternoon, the kickoff to a memorable weekend leading up to Monday night’s official induction, it was impossible not to think about how much the game has changed and where it’s headed.

Chris Chelios could be as nasty as they come. Brendan Shanahan had more than 2,000 penalty minutes. The late Fred Shero coached the Broad St. Bullies.

None of them did anything that wasn’t perfectly acceptable at the time, very much part of the hockey culture of their particular era.

"You can’t elbow a guy in the head today," said Chelios, considered the greatest American player of all-time. "Back in the ‘80s? I’m going to try and take Mogilny’s head off; and I did because it was allowed, it was tolerated, it was a two-minute penalty and that’s it. Now with the rules? As a player you have to adjust."

And he would have adjusted. What makes great players great is that they can adapt to their surroundings. Chelios could have easily played in today’s NHL, but he would have toned down the dirty stuff, picking his spots for sure.

"The whole game is evolving certainly," Shanahan said after picking up his HHOF ring, very much the face of that evolution as the head of the NHL’s Player Safety Department.

"I do think our challenge every night is to try and get involved in a way where we don’t lose the physicality of hockey. Sometimes that’s a difficult job to do. We do it as a committee and we do our very best. But it’s certainly a new direction. Sometimes you’ll think back to the way you used to do things, the rules were different. It’s a challenge."

Shanahan points to a game in Carolina years ago when he played with Detroit when he and Bob Boughner got into a stick-swinging incident.

"A vicious stick fight," Shanahan recalled. "It was vicious. And we both got match penalties. But there was no video of it. So we didn’t get suspended."

Then Shanahan continues with a wry smile: "Boughner and I might have reached out to each other after the game to get our stories straight, to keep each other from getting suspended -- which years later I admitted to Colin Campbell. But I tell you what, that would have been leading off the news that night. I would not have been able to escape that one from Colin."

With more education on the long-term effects of brain injuries, the game is forever headed in a new direction.

"I never had a reported concussion in my career until my 19th year in the league, when I was actually knocked out cold," Shanahan said. "I know I must have had plenty of concussions. We just didn’t know. It’s also about more knowledge."

Ray Shero is one of the more outspoken GMs in the NHL when it comes to pushing for change and a crackdown on head shots and fighting. If that sounds at all like he’s at odds with what his late father represented, it isn’t.

Because of the Broad St. Bullies image, people forget that Fred Shero was a great hockey mind who was often ahead of the curve, ahead of his time for some of his coaching ideas. And he won championships in other leagues with teams that weren’t full of tough guys.

The point is, Ray Shero said, if his father was alive today, he wouldn’t bury his head in the sand over the issues at hand in the game.

"I think he’d really want to look at it," Ray Shero told ESPN.com Friday after picking up his father’s HHOF ring. "Because I do think when I look back at when he coached, one of the reasons he’s going into the Hall of Fame is because he was an innovator. I believe that he would want to have this discussion and look at things, and see that the game is changing.

"I don’t think my father would be standing here today steadfast about not changing. As Brendan said, the game is evolving. Thirty years ago, there used to be a bench-clearing brawl every week. Obviously now there isn’t. We just have to keep looking at it."

The key is to keep the sport as physical as possible while making it as safe as possible. That seems counter-intuitive at times, because it’s awfully difficult.

"My view? I’m old school, and I don’t want to sound like a cold-hearted guy, but there’s risk and reward for when you’re an athlete," said Chelios, who then glanced over to Shanahan a few feet away.

"Their job is to protect the players, and they’re trying to do the best they can. There has to be some type of responsibility and onus on the players to respect each other. But I like the North American style of hockey, I’ll take will over skill any time, mostly because I didn’t have the skill that Scott Niedermayer had, he was just so smooth."

Niedermayer would have fit in today’s game just fine. The silky smooth blueliner did his damage with his skating and passing hands, not his fists or his elbows.

He was there in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals when Devils teammate Scott Stevens crushed Ducks winger Paul Kariya with an open-ice hit that today would likely have been a suspension.

"There’s definitely more awareness, which is a great thing, and I think it’s headed in the right direction," Niedermayer said of the league’s work on concussions.

Kariya came back to play in those Cup finals. Today’s concussion protocol would likely have prevented that, although Jonathan Toews admitted after last season’s Cup finals that he played through a concussion against Boston.

More often than not, the player needs to be protected from himself.

"Certainly, there is life after hockey, whether a player can believe that or not," Niedermayer said.