The NHL season starts tomorrow, but already we have seen a flurry of activity within the league. Most notable among the goings on have been the record number of suspensions handed down by the NHL’s newly appointed VP of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan.
In addition to being the face of the NHL’s new “tough on head shots” policy, Shanahan has not only been making waves for the number of suspensions he’s handed down thus far, but also for the manner in which he’s doing it. No longer content to rely on a press release outlining the player, infraction, and discipline applied, Shanahan is taking to the internet, and has produced a small video explanation of every single disciplinary action that has come to his attention. These videos include a short clip of the incident(s) in question (from multiple angles and slow motion), a citation of the applicable rules, what, if any discipline has been decided upon, and, most importantly, his reasoning behind why or why not a certain decision was reached (The videos can be found on the NHL’s website, in the video section under the Player Safety channel).
One of the things I most remember about the discipline handed out by Colin Campbell (Shanahan’s predecessor) is a total lack of transparency. He would make an announcement that a certain player was under review, then shortly thereafter issue a decision via press release, often with little to no explanation to how he applied the rules in making his decision. Often times these press releases were criticized in the media for failing to set guidelines for players and coaches that were easy to follow, and that Campbell’s discipline was often inconsistent and arbitrary. This often set up a very acrimonious relationship between the players and the NHL as an organization, since there was such a perceived lack of clarity or consistency in the application of discipline.
In my opinion, part of what makes Shanahan’s new approach with these video such a great idea is that Shanahan is announcing that his tenure will be much different from that of Campbell’s without openly criticizing his predecessor. By showing the exact play, quoting the exact rule, and clearly outlining his decision making process, Shanahan has put himself in a much different light that those who have held his role before him. In many ways he has announced his presence, in addition to the dawning of a new era in the NHL with regards to headshots, in a very clever way. Not only that, but he has put himself in a better position with regards to the league, the players, and the media since he has preempted any attempts to call his judgment into question. Players, coaches, and teams may disagree with his decisions, but he has set up a system that is easy to defend and is accessible to all.
Most importantly, in my opinion, the transparency that he has introduced into this aspect of professional sports is a stroke of genius. It has so many potential benefits, and relatively few drawbacks. Among the ways that this approach can be beneficial, some of the following are what appeal to me:
1 – Trust. One of the biggest things that these videos do is instill a sense of trust that anyone appearing before Shanahan’s desk will receive a fair shake. By clearly outlining what his criteria are for legal and illegal plays, he is setting a bar that is equal across the league. Gone are the days of “you’re suspended because we said so.” Players, coaches, and teams may not agree with Shanahan’s decisions, but at least they are able to see how he came to a decision.
2 – Clarity. One of the factors that can erode relationships within a group faster than anything else is a lack of clarity. A lack of clarity of roles, of rules, and of repercussions can often lead to frustration amongst everyone involved. By showing a clear decision making process, Shanahan is allowing the rest of the league to buy-in to his process, as well as giving crystal clear examples of what types of plays will and will not result in suspensions.
3 – Consistency. In addition to holding players to set guidelines with regards to their play, the other thing that Shanahan has done is very subtly set himself a set of guidelines. Players will be able to judge how consistent Shanahan is in applying discipline based on his previous decisions – a fact of which I am almost positive Shanahan must have been aware of when he made the decision to release his rulings via video. By allowing himself to be held to certain standards, he once again is building the relationship between the NHL and the players employed therein.
All of these really contribute to the players’ understanding his decision making process, as well as having the added benefit of building a more cooperative relationship between Shanahan’s office and the players under his purview.