[Preface: I started writing this article two days ago when I first heard the rumblings of NHL executives voicing displeasure with Shanahan’s suspensions, however, after reading Stu Hackel’s excellent article Things I don’t understand yesterday afternoon, I felt that my concerns had been addressed and set my notes aside — until this morning. After reading an article that denounced the suspensions due to the reason that players had not been warned, I gave way to my irritation and frustration. Sadly, that writer missed the entire point of this issue and that is a player’s long-term health and well-being.]

When Brendan Shanahan was hired as the new NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety the entire hockey world cheered and one could almost hear a great sigh of relief.  The players, media and fans alike seemed to agree that a new sheriff in the NHL was absolutely necessary. Along with Shanahan’s hiring came big changes to two NHL rules regarding illegal hits to the head and boarding which were demonstrated in a video released by the NHL. One of the most important goals in these changes was the elimination of all targeted hits to the head, therefore minimizing the rash of concussions that have appeared in the game. Following the release of the new rules and Shanahan’s initial video, there was absolutely no question that hits to the head and boarding would be looked at very carefully in a new NHL video room established in New York to review any plays that might result in supplementary discipline.

  • Rule 41.1 Illegal Boarding Rule: …The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must minimize contact…
  • Rule 48.1 Illegal Check to the Head: A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.

Fast forward through a series of stiff suspensions and unbelievably there are now rumblings among some players, media, bloggers and fans, along with an unnamed NHL executive that Shanahan’s suspensions are going too far. Let’s be very clear on this – just how far is too far? Shanahan, it looks like this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Is the health and well-being of a hockey player too costly for the game of hockey? Does the game suffer without dangerous head-shots and boarding?

Do you honestly think that Shanahan gave no warning to players? His first shot of warning came in his initial video where he made it perfectly clear that he was very serious about his job protecting players.

Shanahan’s first suspension ruling took place on September 22nd for Philadelphia Flyer Jody Shelley for an illegal check against Toronto Maple Leafs Darryl Boyce on September 21st.  Under the new Boarding Rule 41.1 Shelley was suspended for the remainder of the preseason and five regular season games.  This suspension was based on the fact that A) Boyce was injured on the play and B) Shelley was suspended twice last season. That was the first warning.

The second warning came also on the September 22nd when Calgary Flames Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond was suspended for an illegal check on Vancouver Canucks player Matt Clackson in the game on September 20th. Letourneau-Leblond was suspended for the remainder of the preseason and one regular season game and Shanahan makes clear that a factor leading to his ruling is that Letourneau-Leblond had been suspended one game last season.

The third warning came on September 25th with the suspension of Brad Boyes, the Buffalo Sabres player, for his illegal hit to the head of Toronto Maple Leafs player Joe Colborne on September 24th. Boyes was suspended two preseason games only given his lack of any past history suspensions and no injury on the play, however, Shanahan makes it very clear in his video ruling that going forward Boyes will now be classified as a repeat offender.

Clearly, for Shanahan two key factors weigh heavily on any ruling against a player:

  • Is there an injury as a result of the illegal hit or boarding?
  • Has there been a past history of suspensions?

Is there anything difficult to understand about this?

The fourth warning came on September 26th when Shanahan suspended Columbus Blue Jacket James Wisniewski the remainder of the preseason and eight regular season games for an illegal hit to the head of Minnesota Wild player Cal Clutterbuck. Shanahan’s video clearly explains the justification for his ruling.

  • Wisniewski intentionally targeted the head of Clutterbuck after the play had ended
  • Wisniewski had a prior suspension history, being suspended four times since March 2008

The fifth warning came also on September 26th for a penalty in the same game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. Wild player Brad Staubitz was suspended for illegal boarding against Blue Jacket Cody Bass. The key factors were that Bass was injured on the play and Staubitz has been suspended previously in 2009. Staubitz has been suspended for the remainder of the preseason and three regular season games.

The sixth warning came on September 27th when Anaheim Duck Jean-François Jacques was suspended for leaving the bench with the intention of starting a fight against Vancouver Canuck Mike Duco in their September 24th game.

  • Rule 70.1: No player may leave the players’ bench … for the purpose of starting an altercation. … A player who has entered the game while play is in progress from his own players’ bench … who starts an altercation, may be subject to discipline.

In addition to the automatic suspension for starting a fight in the final five minutes of the game, Jacques also received a suspension for the remainder of the preseason games and five regular season games. Key in Shanahan’s ruling was the following factor:

  • Jacques made no attempt to take part in the game

The seventh warning came on September 28th when Philadelphia Flyers Tom Sestito delivered an illegal boarding check to New York Rangers Andrea Deveaux. Sestito was suspended for the remainder of the preseason and two regular season games. The justifications provided by Shanahan were as follows:

  • Illegal Check
  • No previous NHL suspensions by Sestito
  • No injury on the play

These seven suspension rulings should provide more than enough warning to players to amend their play. The four suspensions for illegal boarding, two suspensions for illegal hits to the head, and one suspension for leaving the bench amount to 24 regular season games.  Brendan Shanahan and the NHL are very serious about enforcing their new rule changes.

The eighth warning will now come as a result of last night’s Detroit Red Wings Brendan Smith hit on Chicago Blackhawks Ben Smith which resulted in a frightening moment as Ben Smith lay motionless face down on the ice. Brendan Smith was given a match penalty for the illegal hit to the head during the game and now Shanahan will have to rule on this quickly since Detroit is scheduled to play Friday night against Toronto.

UPDATE: NHL released Brendan Smith ruling: “Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith has been suspended for the remainder of the preseason and five regular-season games, without pay, for an illegal hit to the head of Chicago forward Ben Smith during a preseason game on September 28, NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan announced today.”

  • Rule 48.1 Illegal check to the head: …in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit … can be considered.”

Key Points to Shanahan’s ruling in case of Brendan Smith:

  • Illegal hit to the head
  • Head Position doesn’t change
  • Significant Injury
  • First-time offender

Are these suspensions good for the game of hockey? Absolutely and positively yes. The overriding reason for these major rule changes – changes which many people have conveniently forgotten in this preseason euphoria of hockey’s return – is that these dangerous checks must be eradicated. Player safety should be paramount in this entire discussion and if it takes an eight game suspension to get the point across, so be it.