By David Bray
Last spring, when Brendan Shanahan accepted the job as NHL vice president of player safety, fans knew it would only be a matter of time before the future Hall of Famer became one of the most unpopular figures in the National Hockey League. At first, the move was considered a breath of fresh air, as Colin Campbell had been in the position for 12 years, but it would not be long before somebody got mad about a suspension or lack thereof.
Unpopularity comes with the territory. The vp of player safety is the one ultimately responsible for handing out supplemental discipline (fines and suspensions for misconduct on and off the ice) to players and coaches. No matter how fair and consistent the league disciplinarian tries to be, they are bound to upset every fan base in the league at some point. Midway through the first round of playoffs with “Shanaban” in charge, it has become obvious that Shanahan’s series icing empty net goal in 2002 or his mocking of a female fan will not be the most memorable moments of his career.
Shanahan won over many hockey fans early in the season when he started making video explanations for all the suspensions that were issued. However, questions have risen recently about Shanahan’s consistency. One of the first suspensions he issued was an eight-game ban for Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski, for a hit to the head in a pre-season game. In his first disciplinary action of the playoffs, Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber was issued a $2,500 fine for smashing Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards. The fine seems especially low considering that star players like Weber make a lot more money than coaches and that New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella was recently fined $20,000 for saying what everyone else was thinking and calling the Pittsburgh Penguins an arrogant organization. This came a few months after Torts was fined $30,000 for accusing the referees of trying to get a nationally televised Rangers game into overtime.
Since the precedent was set by the Weber fine, dirty play in the Stanley Cup playoffs has ramped up significantly. The series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, with the Flyers taking a 3-0 series lead, was the most highly anticipated playoff series. The series has been turned into a bloodbath in which the Penguins have resorted to the kind of cheap goonery that gives hockey a bad name. Aaron Asham, a veteran player who has earned a reputation as a tough guy, has transformed into a dirty player this series and has been suspended for four games for his hit on Flyers rookie Brayden Schenn. He also elbowed Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Aldredsson. Rangers forward Carl Hagelin has been suspended three games. After opening the door for dirty hits with the Weber ruling, Shanahan, must crack down to prevent the foul play in the playoffs from getting even more out of hand.
Recently, Chicago Blackhawks All Star forward Marian Hossa was the victim of the most egregious cheap shot of the 2012 playoffs. Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres hit Hossa so late that the cameras that follow the puck were nowhere near the scene. This is not the first time Torres has made a dirty hit against Chicago in the playoffs. Last year, when playing for the Vancouver Canucks, Torres was the center of controversy when he targeted Brent Seabrook’s head in the first round of the playoffs. Torres received only a minor penalty, despite being a repeat offender. Later, he scored the game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Off the ice, Torres is no model citizen. Last Halloween, he and his wife were heavily criticized when pictures surfaced of them wearing black-face, dressed as Jay-Z and Beyonce. For a sport that has been trying to gain a wider and more diverse audience, this was not the type of publicity the NHL needed.
This is a player that Brandan Shanahan really needs to drop the Shanhammer on. Torres is right up there with Dale Hunter, Ulf Samuelsson, Claude Lemieux, and Matt Cooke as one of the dirtiest players in the history of the National Hockey League.
The NHL has the best playoff tournament in all of sports, and the physical aspect of hockey is what makes it superior. These games need to be cleaned up or there will not be any star players standing by the beginning of June. Playoff hockey is best when the officials swallow the whistles and let the players play, but it is up to the players and the league disciplinarian to play a clean but tough game. Shanahan is still the new sheriff in town, and he needs to lay down the law.