Jim Neveau, Managing Editor
Lost in all the wonderful drama that has been occurring so far in these NHL playoffs has been an undercurrent of disdain among fans and pundits of the game. These ill feelings are mostly directed toward the league itself, and especially Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan for his handling of discipline as a rash of violent and illegal hits has turned the postseason into more of a sideshow than a celebration of hockey.
Whether it be Shea Weber’s ill-advised pounding of Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass, or Arron Asham’s cross-check to Brayden Schenn’s throat, it seems as though an uncommonly high number of players have lost themselves in the moment and have exhibited incredibly poor judgment. Perhaps more than any other player, however, Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres did just that on Tuesday night in Chicago against the Blackhawks, when he nailed Marian Hossa with a high hit that sent the Hawks star forward to the hospital on a stabilizing board.
Torres wasn’t whistled for a penalty on the play, but that knowledge didn’t mean he was going to skate away unscathed.
After being suspended indefinitely by the league before Thursday’s game, Torres met on Friday with Shanahan at the league offices in New York, and on Saturday morning, his suspension was announced. For what Shanahan termed as “a violation of three NHL rules – interference, charging, and illegal check to the head,” Torres was suspended for 25 games in what is one of the longest bans in the history of the NHL.
Don Maloney, General Manager of the Coyotes, had initially been skeptical of the calls for a ban, accusing Chicago fans of “acting like Raffi had murdered a bus full of children”. After the suspension however, and to his credit, he stood by the league’s decision:
“I want to thank Brendan Shanahan and his staff for their thorough review of this incident. The ruling is very severe for Raffi and our Hockey Club. Raffi plays a hard, physical game yet this contact crossed the line on what is acceptable in our game today. We hope Marian Hossa makes a full and speedy recovery as we all enjoy watching him perform. The Club accepts the NHL’s decision and will focus on our game tonight.”
There are a few things that immediately come to mind when reading that suspension. The first, of course, is its incredible length. Granted, an in-person hearing means the suspension can be more than five games, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone without a direct rooting interest in the Blackhawks legitimately thought the ban would be anywhere near that long. When taking that into account, as well as the other precedents set forth during this postseason, this by far is the most severe, and it has seemingly come out of left field.
That, perhaps more than anything, could be the message the league is trying to send. For too long during the opening part of the playoffs, the focus has been on the poor job that Shanahan has been doing to police the game, and the amount of criticism he has been under can only be described as “withering”. After only a year on the job, Shanahan is already hearing calls from some corners for his ouster, and with a reputation for inconsistency and leniency already starting to be printed on his legacy in this position, he was likely looking to change the course of the debate, and by suspending Torres for 25 games, he has done just that.
By doing this, Shanahan has made it inescapably clear that he is in charge, and that these kind of shenanigans will not be tolerated. No longer will he leave it up to on-ice officials to help determine the severity of punishment that a player should receive, and that can only be described as a good thing. The referees and linesmen who are working these series have been put in a difficult position by the rambunctiousness that the players have displayed, and unfortunately for them, they have extremely limited access to instant replay to help them make calls that frankly need to be looked at in slow motion. Shanahan is not under that restriction, so it’s on him more so to make sure that players are disciplined properly, and he finally asserted that authority this time.
The danger now is that Shanahan abides by this type of precedent. Yes, Torres is a repeat offender who has been suspended several times for these types of hits, but 25 games is still way more than a repeat offender could have expected to receive. After all, Penguins forward Matt Cooke was suspended for 10 games and the first round of the playoffs last year, and that was a suspension that dropped a lot of jaws throughout the league. This is on a whole new level, and by issuing the lengthy ban that he did today, Shanahan has set that bar even higher, and he has to continue to abide by it or face even more intense scorn from fans and pundits alike.
The real test for him in the coming weeks will be if another big name star faces his wrath. If a guy like Shea Weber or Evgeni Malkin does something remarkably stupid, will Shanahan be willing to say “enough’s enough” and to suspend them instead of just fining them the paltry $2500 the current CBA entitles him to?
In addition, Shanahan will also have to adhere to this type of ban if another player, like a Cooke or a Shane Doan, is a repeat offender and runs afoul of the law. It’s going to be a tricky balance to strike, especially with a guy like Doan or Alex Ovechkin who is integral to his team’s chances, but still has been suspended repeatedly over the years.
Finally though, what is going to matter most is whether or not Shanahan is only legislating these hits based on injury and not intent. Yes, a hit that injures a player looks worse from a PR perspective, but when it comes to situations like this, the intent can be just as important. For example, in the James Neal situation, he clearly wanted to elbow a couple of Flyers players in the head, and just because none of those players sustained a serious injury does not change the fact that he seemingly wanted to take one of them out.
Quibbling about suspending based on intent to injure aside, the hope among fans can only be that this isn’t a one-off thing, but rather a crystal clear message that reverberates throughout the rest of the league: if you continue to play the game in a dangerous fashion, you are going to get slapped with long suspensions and long times off the ice. Shanahan has set a new standard for himself, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he adheres to that from now on.